Thursday, March 1, 2012

Act of Valor

All movies play either into or against our beliefs about how the world works to some degree. That’s why things can heat up so fast when we talk about them: When we insist that Tree of Life is a pretentious bore or Bridesmaids was robbed of a Best Picture Oscar nod, chances are what’s really riling us is a conviction that Hollywood is dominated by an out-of-touch elite, or that it has no room for women who don’t fit the hot-girlfriend mold.

Certain genres, like romantic comedies and fish-out-of-water buddy movies, don’t hit any hot buttons in most of us, which is probably why they work so well as escapism. But war movies hit us where we live and die, dredging up clannish feelings about our politics, identities, and national security. That’s why they can work so well as propaganda—but only for people whose values are aligned with whatever point of view they’re selling.

Act of Valor is straight-up propaganda for the Navy, whose Special Warfare division put out calls for a film that would “bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as Navy SEALs.” Its promotional campaign focuses mainly on how “real” it is, aiming to entice us with the thrill of watching true heroes at work. Even a minor controversy played neatly into the filmmakers’ hands, letting them luxuriate in questions about whether Act of Valor reveals military secrets before batting them aside with assurances that “the Navy had a full scrub on the film for techniques, tactics, and procedures. Every frame was looked at,” as co-director/co-producer Mike McCoy put it.

If you know anything about this movie, you probably know that it stars real SEALs, and that they’re great in the action scenes but not so good in the quiet intervals between. They’re actually not terrible actors, but they are too self-contained to telegraph much range or depth of emotion, as you might expect from men who have to, as the voiceover says at the end, “put your pain in a box. Lock it down.”

So scenes of the guys at home are kept short or played as wordless montages, while the battle scenes are detailed and drawn-out, sometimes to a fault. Our small band of brothers takes to air, land, and water to speed into terrorist hideouts and waste bad guys while communicating in a terse, manly code. They do cool stuff like moving underwater like a row of gators, surfacing only briefly for air, or scoping out a scene with surveillance drones that look like tiny toy airplanes. Knowing that these are real SEALs makes it harder to dismiss this footage, but the truth is that most of it feels numbingly familiar. We may be short on some things in America these days, but realistically shot scenes of uniformed men using cool tools to defeat bad guys is not one of them.

The SEALs’ main nemesis, Abu Shabal, is the perfect bogeyman for our era: a Chechen-symp terrorist who’s hatched a plan to destabilize the U.S. economy through simultaneous terrorist attacks in several major cities. He’s in cahoots with a Russian smuggling kingpin, a Mexican drug cartel, and Indonesian and Filipino jihadis, giving the filmmakers an excuse to take a shaky camera down a picturesquely impoverished Manila street and night-vision goggles through a shantytown in … I forget where exactly, since all the foreign countries started to meld into one big terrorist-infested mass after a while.

As Michael Medved crowed in the Daily Beast, Act of Valor grossed about twice as much on its opening weekend as The Hurt Locker did in its entire run, suggesting that “the public viewed buying tickets for Act of Valor as a means of openly supporting our noble troops and endorsing their work, while The Hurt Locker seemed to express pity for its bomb-defusing military professionals—honorable but damaged guys trapped in their dubious mission in Iraq.” For Medved, the script’s lack of nuance is a plus, since “for many of us who pay close attention to the ongoing efforts of elite counter-terror units, the daily struggle against some of the most depraved and monstrous forces on earth is indeed a clear-cut battle of good versus evil.”

But those of us who appreciate the skills displayed and sacrifices made by our military men and women but don’t always endorse the missions they are sent on will feel differently. As the cartoonishly masculine voiceover urges his dead buddy’s infant son to “sing your death song and die like a hero going home” at the end of Act of Valor, the baby gazes trustingly at his mother from his high chair. I’m sure that juxtaposition reads as inspirational to a lot of people, but to me it looks borderline obscene, and dangerously close to the jihadist glorification of death for an unquestioned and presumed-noble cause that this movie purports to abhor.

Written for TimeOff

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