Last May, when President Obama announced that members of Navy SEAL Team Six had found and killed Osama bin Laden in northeastern Pakistan, questions quickly arose. Why was the ailing, 54-year-old al Qaeda leader not taken alive — subdued, detached from his dialysis machine and remanded to custody? And if urgent exigencies demanded his assassination, why was bin Laden shot in the head, rendering photographic proof of his death officially unpublishable? Instead of aiming for the heart when they confronted the bad guy in Abbottabad, had some SEAL members gone suddenly vengeful, aimed higher and kept on shooting, because the bastard deserved it?
Having seen Act of Valor, the vigorous, amateurish action movie in which active-combat SEALs play something like themselves on dangerous missions around the world, I can deduce one answer to those troubling questions. SEALs have cool heads and faultless aim. If they monogrammed the skull of the 9/11 CEO, it must be because their President had ordered them to bring him the head of Osama bin Laden.
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Initiated not in a Hollywood studio but in a Pentagon PR office, and starring a half-dozen SEALs identified only by their first name and rank — Lieutenant Commander Rorke, Special Warfare Operative Chief Dave, SPO First Class Ajay and others called Weimy, Sonny and Mikey — Act of Valor offers further insights into these nonfiction action figures. They are proud warriors, fierce friends, devoted husbands and pretty stiff actors.
The movie, which claims to be “based on real acts of valor,” begins with on-camera testimony by Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, the ex-stuntmen who directed the picture; part hype about the film’s authenticity, part implicit apology for the rawness of the picture, the statement is like a “making-of” DVD extra you’re supposed to watch before the movie. What follows is a story of this SEAL team saving America from an international cast of scoundrels. The Philippine suicide squad and the Mexican cartel thugs have been commandeered by two guys from Chechnya: a drug smuggler nicknamed Cristo (Alex Veadov) and his boyhood friend, now a jihadist who calls himself Muhammad Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle). Shabal plans to sneak the Filipinos through a tunnel from Mexico into the U.S., with the ultimate plan of bombing Las Vegas. Virtually all ethnic and religious stereotypes are represented, including one that hasn’t been seen much in movies lately: the avaricious, hook-nosed Jew. That’s Cristo, whose merger with Shadad may be meant to show that Muslims and Jews can work together. Alert Iran.
The villains here are as interested in torturing women and killing schoolchildren as they are in making dirty billions or bringing down the Great Beast Satan (US). They also can’t shoot straight, whereas the SEALs’ aim is unerring; no collateral damage when they blast away. And as hand-to-hand combat heroes, they don’t fire missiles at Afghan villages from computers back home. The Dronesmen, playing deadly video games, may be the warriors of the future. The SEALs, with their ethnically diverse membership and platitudes about the folks back home, are like the coolest commando hotshots from a World War II movie.
From that war emerged a whole generation of actors, not all of whom had come from Broadway. Audie Murphy, a Texas farm boy who was the war’s most decorated GI, forged a star career in Westerns and in his own bio-pic, To Hell and Back. But Murphy didn’t have the impact of another soldier’s single film appearance. Harold Russell had lost both of his hands when an explosive device detonated (not in combat; he was making an Army training film). Playing the sailor Homer Parrish in the 1946 hit The Best Years of Our Lives, Russell gave audiences a poignant glimpse of the war’s true cost.
It could be that Murphy and Russell registered as fine actors because they had good scripts and better directors; Russell, who won both the Supporting Actor Oscar and an honorary Academy Award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” was directed in Best Years by three-time Oscar winner William Wyler. Rorke and Dave, the central performers in Act of Valor, had no such luck. The screenplay, credited to 300 co-scripter Kurt Johnstad (though he is barely mentioned in the press notes about the project), is heavy on military jargon downrange — “We got about 4.7 clicks at 3-5-5″ — and, back home, dewy bonding with Team members and fretful families. One SEAL has five kids, another is expecting his first child. One carries his grandfather’s American flag in his uniform pocket. On and on, clichés pretending to be insights.
McCoy and Waugh, known as the Bandito Brothers, can assemble complex battle scenes, including an early skirmish that demonstrates all three of the Team’s skills: parachuting to the ground, maneuvering silently under swamp water and creeping unseen toward an enemy compound. (SEAL is an acronym for Sea, Air and Land.) The Banditos stumble, though, when they try getting the real soldiers to speak with passion or coherence. Fighting is a learned skill; so is acting. And the SEAL stars are plausible only when on maneuvers — performing as their own stunt doubles. The SEALs, who Johnstad says appeared in the film only on vacation time, certainly look the rugged, handsome part; but we can’t tell if they could really act, since the characters they’re meant to play are only heroic cardboard cutouts.
And heroes don’t question the mission. As they swoop into a globe-ful of foreign countries to pick off insurgents, no one says, “Hey, we’re the invaders. They live here.” Of course the movie is propaganda for the Department of Defense, which has provided weaponry to Hollywood movies from Top Gun to Michael Bay’s Transformers series. (On the DVD for the first Transformers, Pentagon liaison officer Paul Sifor recalled Bay touring a “tank graveyard…like a kid at Christmas. ‘Can I have that? Can I have that? Can I burn that? Can I blow that up?’ ‘Absolutely. Anything you want.'”) An end credit for Act of Valor announces that it was produced “in association with Tom Clancy,” the novelist who charges that the Clinton Administration was partly responsible for the 9/11 attacks because of its “gutting” of the CIA.
The Pentagon clearly hopes Act of Valor will be an enticement for potential SEALs. Join the team and save the world, and maybe be a movie star! But recruiting posters don’t often feature — as this film does — a soldier who loses an eye to an enemy bullet, or who dies smothering a live grenade, or who is killed just before his wife delivers her first baby. By our count, three of the core SEALs are maimed or dead by the end. A new baby is left without her loving father. The picture ends not with a parade but with a funeral. And that may be the toughest, most lasting image in this cockamamie, Pentagon-approved war adventure.
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