‘Act of Valor’ Isn’t the Movie Navy SEALs Deserve

Act of Valor, a new movie directed by Mouse McCoy and Scott Waugh out today, has been set up as something of a loyalty test. Either you like the movie, which stars active-duty Navy SEALs and was made in close collaboration with the military, or you hate the troops. It isn’t that simple, of course. Act of Valor is a deeply uneven movie, an odd hybrid of first-person shooter, Nicholas Sparks treacle, and the wise-cracking, slightly surreal dialogue that’s become de riguer in action flicks. But while I don’t think the acting is much good—as Keith Phipps says at the AV Club, “Acting is a specialized skill too, albeit one less essential to national security.”—or the plot is particularly compelling, Act of Valor did make me feel profoundly sympathetic to Navy SEALs, though not precisely in the way McCoy and Waugh may have intended.

Act of Valor follows a team of SEALs, one of whom, Rourke, has a baby on the way at home, as they rescue a CIA agent and then start chasing down the terrorist cell she was tracking, who are planning an attack on major American cities. The movie’s goal seems to be to convince us of two things that I think most Americans don’t actually need to be persuaded to believe—that military families bear up under tremendous strains and make tremendous sacrifices, and that the SEALs do amazing, awe-inspiring things.

But McCoy and Waugh don’t always appear to know what their best tools are in achieving those objectives. The movie spends a lot of time on deeply ponderous voiceovers that are meant to communicate what a good man Rourke was with sentiments like “He said the worst thing about growing old is other men no longer see you as dangerous…dangerousness was sacred,” or “Your father was a reader. Churchill, of course, but also Faulker and books about Tecumseh.” This speechifying takes up time we could have spent watching the characters actually interact with each other, showing us these traits rather than telling us about them. Some of the action sequences are genuinely exciting, as when a SEAL comes up out of the water behind a guard at a terrorist camp, catching him after he’s shot and lowering his body into the water so as not to make a splash. But much of the action sequences are shot to look like a first-person shooter perspective in a video game, narrowing the frame and making the action seem less dynamic. And in an act of tonal bizarreness, the SEALs team features an interrogator who seems quite literally beamed in from A Fish Called Wanda: his name is Otto, he looks suspiciously like Kevin Kline, he’s got a talent for violence, and says things during interrogations like “You’ve never seen Star Trek? That’s insane!”

There’s no question that the things that the SEALs do are genuinely thrilling: a scene where they hop a ride on a surfacing nuclear submarine is well-filmed and exciting. But if anything, the movie gives the impression that the military doesn’t treat the SEALs all that well: the briefings they’re given are so desultory as to be useless, and they’re constantly being dropped into situations where they’re outgunned. Because things are so busy—and there apparently aren’t enough people available—Rourke can’t get home to see his child born. It’s a setup that left me feeling rather differently about the SEALs themselves and the apparatus that supports them.

And the movie, which wants to make us recognize our obligations to the people who take enormous risks for us, does something rather dodgy in showing the SEALs in theaters other than the ones where we’re currently most engaged. The movie says it’s based on “real acts of valor,” and the clearest analogue is that to Petty Officer Michael Monsoor, a SEAL who threw himself on a grenade in Iraq to save his comrades, and who was awarded a Medal of Honor after his death. In Act of Valor, that same situation takes place but in a Mexican tunnel system controlled by a drug cartel. Choosing that scenario separates the audience from an important fact—rather than having that act of valor take place far from a war zone where we’re actually engaged lets the movie suggest that it will always be necessary for Marines to sacrifice themselves, rather than digging into the question of whether we could avoid circumstances that create more opportunities to put SEALs—and all soldiers—in extreme danger.

I don’t think it’s unpatriotic to ask that question, just as I don’t think it’s unpatriotic to ask whether or not our soldiers are properly equipped and supported, or whether the tactics we’re asking people to employ—or behaviors soldiers themselves engage in—will endanger their comrades lives down the road (to its credit, Act of Valor at least makes a gesture at being anti-torture). I also don’t think it’s unpatriotic to suggest that stories about members of the armed services have good writing and deft acting. We best honor the troops by knowing them as they are.