After “Act of Valor,” we can no longer complain about inaccuracies and inauthentic material in action movies. This relatively fictional and dramatized look at the work of a U.S. Navy SEAL team is unquestionably the most realistic portrayal of the special ops branch in a “narrative” motion picture, and having employed actual active duty SEALs in the lead roles of the main characters, that’s obviously the intention of stuntment-turned-filmmakers Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. But action movies aren’t really meant to be realistic, and this one just proves why authenticity isn’t necessarily a positive thing when it comes to entertainment.
This is something understood by another actual (retired) Navy SEAL, who I had the chance to interview recently regarding cinematic depictions of his community over the years. “It may turn out to be a very good movie,” he told me of his high expectations for “Valor,” “Whether it’s something that the public will think is a good movie, I don’t know.” He believes at least the SEALs will appreciate it, if only because it’s a rare instance of Hollywood not doing a disservice to this misunderstood section of the military, however they’re a very small audience to cater to.
As for the general public, they should be able to get over the wooden acting, which honestly isn’t any worse than many genuine action movie stars, and some of the convincing set pieces (an early extraction sequence involving Navy SWCCs in particular) are as spectacular as any in a major summer blockbuster. But the simple terrorism plot employed to string together these action scenes feels forced and yet also lacking in the kind of imagination we expect from the movies.
Part of me wants to classify “Act of Valor” as a documentary, albeit one consisting completely of “reenactment” material. Thinking about the broad scope of documentary qualifications, it’s not too different from hybrids like Lionel Rogosin’ “On the Bowery” (which hit DVD and Blu-ray this week), which employ real life subjects and are set against genuine backdrops but involve technically fictional stories, based in truth to an extent, in order to dramatically engage viewers and introduce them to a world that’s both veritable and relatable.
Yet most people today wouldn’t qualify this as a doc, so it’s possibly relegated to the opposite of a hybrid, falling somewhere outside both documentary and narrative film as a kind of failure of cinema altogether. It’s not so much a film as an attempt to sell a feature length SEAL recruitment ad as a “film product” (equivalent to fake, processed goods like “cheese product” or “wine product”). It may not be a disservice to the soldiers but it’s a disservice to moviegoers.
Still, I think it could have been passable entertainment if only it had been directed more clearly and competently. The extreme close-up framing employed for so much of “Valor” is unacceptable for many reasons, but mostly for the way it goes against the very intent of the picture. How are we to appreciate authenticity if we don’t get a good look at it? For the same reasons you don’t crop or edit too much with real dancing talent in musicals, you want to show as wide an angle on legitimate stunt work and action as possible (see “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and probably “Haywire,” which I haven’t yet).
Given my experience watching true documentaries, I accept that a drawback to filming realistic material in real time is that you don’t always get the most controlled camera work, let alone the widest coverage possible. I also think it is probably with some purpose that a lot of “Valor” looks like a first-person video, with all the narrow and messy vantages that aesthetic allows. The plot itself is very much like a game, each big action sequence correlating to the end of a level on the way to finishing the total objective. Each of these sequences indeed ends consistentlywith expository dialogue explaining that “the mission is not over yet.”
Unfortunately, possibly an effect of authenticity, the final battle isn’t really as climactic as you’d expect from either an action movie or a video game. In a major way, the mission to figure out how to produce a genuinely accurate action movie isn’t over yet, either, nor is the goal of bringing back the concept of exciting adventure-based documentaries (see my Movies.com column on “Doc-Busters” from last year). Looks like we still have a few levels to go on both ends.
“Act of Valor” opens this Friday in wide release.
Recommended If You Like: “Navy SEALs”; neo-realism; the miltary recruitment ads that play before the movie in some cinemas