I went with the Morrisseys to see “Act Of Valor” last Saturday. You’ve probably heard about it; it’s the movie ostensibly about Navy SEALs starring, well, Navy SEALs.
The film’s gotten mixed reviews from the usual film-critic suspects. Some point to the quality of the acting (while there are a few C-list actors playing terrorists, CIA agents and government officials, everyone in a US uniform is a serviceperson, mostly active-duty SEALs); others say that the script swerves from simplistic to outright jingo; some call it a “recruiting film”.
But it’s gone over gangbusters with the critics that really matter, the audience; it crushed the (admittedly lackluster) competition to be the top-grossing movie in the country in its first weekend out, the weekend before last.
I don’t go to a lot of movies – the last two I saw in a theatre during their first runs were True Grit and, before that, Gran Torino. But I figured it was worth a quick review.
First, A Minor Quibble: There are few things I find as tedious as people who pick over otherwise-watchable movies looking for continuity errors. There are entire sites devoted to the practice – and beyond the few really obvious howlers, the practice bores me stiff.
That said, there was one error that stuck in my craw – and maybe mine alone, among people who were not in the Navy. After the initial raid into Costa Rica (I won’t give any spoilers), the “LT” – the commander of the SEAL platoon that stars in the movie – is standing on the deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard, an “Amphibious Assault Ship” built to carry Marines and their helicopters (and the odd Harrier jump jet) to wherever they need to attack. It looks like an aircraft carrier – and it literally is, in that it carries aircraft, in the form of helicopters and vertical take-off aircraft.
But in the scene after the raid, the “LT” is standing on the deck, talking with his wife on a satellite phone; he has to wait while an airplane (an S3 Viking antisubmarine patrol plane) gets shot off the deck by a steam catapult; think the opening sequences in Top Gun. The scene ends with a long-shot of the Richard, its deck covered in choppers, and not a fixed-wing plane in sight – because the ship has no catapult to launch big fixed-wing planes.
It’s a minor quibble – but we North Dakotans are a seafaring race, and we take our ships seriously.
Next, A Major And Overlooked Spiff: The cinematography is amazing. Many have written about the helmet-cam perspective shots during the firefights, so I expected heart-pounding, heavy-breathing first-person point of view shots.
But the rest of the movie is visually stunning on many levels. The direction of action shots above and beyond the firefights is amazing; a scene where someone is being rolled into a carpet is not only edited with a blurry crispness that conveys the blurry confusion of the moment, but includes a shot from a rolling camera to complete the disorientation
The just-plain-cinematography – from the visual feasts of the Costa Rican jungle or the streets in the Philippines to the claustrophobic-yet-panoramic night fight scenes – was excellent, and often stunning. If it weren’t for all the suicide bombs and exploding heads, parts of the movie could be shot for “Planet Earth”.
And visually speaking, it all comes together in one scene, where a bunch of drug-cartel sicarios who’ve been chasing the SEALS through the jungle wind up on the business end of a couple of boat-mounted miniguns during an incredibly adrenaline-blast exfiltration scene. Between the cinematography, the film and sound editing and the direction, it’s an incredible visual of the mayhem on the business end of all that firepower; it’s an amazing bit of visual art, and I don’t mean that from an “America F**k Yeah!” or a “firepower pr0n” perspective. Realistic? I don’t know, I’ve never seen three miniguns hit a pickup truck. Visually overpowering? You bet.
The Acting: I’d heard all the stories, pro and con, about the movie’s “stars”, the SEALs (all credited pseudonymously, none of whom appear on the movie’s IMDB page) and their acting chops.
I’ve got three answers.
First – the goal of great acting is to make you forget you’re watching a performance. Did the SEALs make me forget? Yes and no. There were scenes – mostly when the SEALs are off-duty and waxing colloquial – when you’re acutely aware that they’re saying lines from a script. A few scenes play like high school theatre. Not bad high school theatre, mind you – it takes a decent director to get things as close as they are. I drove home thinking “if the movie were an indy film at Sundance about barristas in Seattle confronting their sexual confusion at an “Occupy” protest, starring real barristas, it’d be hailed as fearless and daring cinema”.
But – secondly, and perhaps obviously? – it was the scenes involving the SEALs plying their craft, doing the sort of things that in real life would send the most grizzled Hollywood stunt veteran running to his union to file a work rules grievance, that most made you forget you were watching a performance because, really, you weren’t. The battle scenes, shot with a buzzy combination of traditional shots and rattly helmet-cam footage and edited to a modern sheen, tightly-edited enough to make Paris Hilton and Rosanne Barr look kinetic? Sure, of course.
But if you’ve spent your life watching Hollywood action-adventure and war movies, with their somersaults and John Woo gun grips and all the other cliches that have grown up around the genre, one thing that impresses about the SEALs in the battle scenes is the extreme economy of their action. There’s none of the dashing and Jackie-Chan-like somersaulting and pseudo-ninja buncombe of so many Hollywood movies on the subject; my impression wasn’t so much “this is accurate” as “this looks real”. There’s a difference.
The third bit about the acting is related. There’s an interrogation scene – I won’t spoil it – starring the “Senior Chief”, the intelligence analyst of the platoon, an older SEAL (late forties, I’d guess) who has settled into middle age in the same way a rattlesnake settles into a cave; of the entire SEAL platoon, he, whoever he is, radiates the most effortless menace, with his grandfatherly (or Taliban-impersonating-ly) beard and his arklahoma accent and sense that he’s not trying to radiate anything. He interrogates a suspect – again, no spoilers. I joked with Ed afterward that the scene played like a community theatre production of 24. I meant it as a compliment; as the Senior Chief drawls through his lines, there was also the acute sense that he wasn’t performing; that he knew the psychology behind what he was doing at a level that goes way deeper than Stanislavsky could ever teach. He said his lines plenty capably; but he lived the role. And while the scene took some dramatic license – it took about five minutes, rather than the days or months it would have taken in real life – it was very, very effective.
Jingo – There are those – mostly on the left in Hollywood – who deride the movie as a “Navy recruiting film”. There’s something to that; the closing credits are very, very long on people with ranks and billets in various Navy Public Affairs offices. And Tom Clancy gets a producer-level credit. Still, Obama-supporting Hollywood shouldn’t complain; since the President has both based his strategy on having lots of SEALs and other special operations forces while simultaneously cutting the regular militaries from whence those troops come, they’d best hope it works.
Beyond that, though? As imperfect and occasionally mawkish as the film may seem to the jaded film fan’s eyes, it’s not Top Gun, or Rambo, much less Charlie Sheen’s Navy Seals. There is a resemblance to Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan; all of them pay homage in their own way to a “greatest generation”. The closing crawl broadly refers to all manner of those who risk all for others, and for all the rest of us – everyone from firemen to fighter pilots to lifeguards.
But I thought – what’s the perfect film analog? And in thinking of the movie’s “narration” – by “The Chief”, a real-life chief petty officer who is the platoon’s second in command – it occurred to me. not since John Wayne’s The Green Berets has there been a movie that unequivocally held up the “Warrior Ethos” – duty, honor, sacrifice for a greater good – as unironically good things.
And even that wasn’t quite right.
The narration is the bookend for the movie – and to a life-long civilian, it almost sounds like something from a cartoon, at first. “My father told me the worst part of getting old was that people stopped seeing you as dangerous”, it starts. But as it dissolves into the movie’s opening scenes, and then wraps back in at the end, as a paeon not to “appearing dangerous” – which is, itself, counterintuitive to most people today – but to the even more counterintuitive-to-our-culture notion of an almost-monastic dedication to something the rest of the culture considers distasteful, foreign, or just something for others to do, whether that something is going into burning buildings, repairing people in inner-city emergency rooms, or going where the bad guys are and killing them quickly and violently.
And then I figured out why it was so hard to find a movie since the mid-sixties that so unironically exalted that way of life; because there really hasn’t been one.