So I was going to write this review for Act of Valor yesterday, but then it completely slipped my mind due to reasons.
Let us begin O:
So Act of Valor is a movie about Navy SEALs tasked with rescuing a captured CIA agent, which leads them to discover a deadly terrorist plot. Naturally, they are the ones who are sent in to stop said plot from occurring on US soil.
It started off life as part of the US Navy’s recruitment initiative, but then grew into a feature length production.
If you were witness to the film’s advertising, you are probably aware of its one draw card. The film stars active duty SEALs using actual military hardware, firing live ammunition, and carrying out actual battlefield tactics.
In that regard, the film acts as a peek into the life of a SEAL. There is a standout moment near the beginning of the film in which the SEALs infiltrate a terrorist installation. It’s quite interesting stuff seeing how SEALs would carry out a stealthy infiltration. Moments like these aren’t really seen in other films. As an Ask Men article charitably put it, other films are pretenders.
It is a shame then that the action is let down by an overuse of shaky cam and quick cuts. It can be argued that shaky cam can create a cinéma vérité, documentary, or “you are there” feel to a film (see Saving Private Ryan for a successful example), however, an overuse of handheld camera work can annoy or confuse a viewer. Your mileage may vary on this, by the way. But an almost constantly shaking camera with quick cuts between subjects without care for considering the geography of the scene can leave the viewer confused as to who is doing the shooting and who is getting shot. A particular instance I can bring to mind is a car chase early in the film where the scene cuts from the inside of one car to a 1 second shot of the outside of another car to the inside of that car and someone being shot in the head. Having the camera focus on the backlit backs of characters’ heads also added to the confusion of the scene, something a few more seconds of film footage showing the outside of the second car would have reduced.
There were also a few tracking shots in which the camera was merrily bouncing around.
I state again that this was a shame because the film presents you with something you rarely get to see in a work of fiction; active duty SEALs using the tactics they would use in the field and firing live ammunition. It seems like a missed opportunity to more clearly portray how these highly trained men do their work.
Onto the story side of things. It honestly seems like the plot was a bit of an afterthought. It is a fairly standard hunt for the terrorists movie. There is no character development beyond the one SEAL who wants to spend more time with his family increasing the number of times he mentions his family as the film goes on. The villains aren’t dwelled upon long enough to understand their reasons for wanting to attack America. They just want to attack America due to some nebulous and all consuming hatred for the country. It feels like their characterisation was ripped from post 9/11 headlines, while the body of the articles were discarded.
One can be excused for not feeling attached to the SEALs. They sure are active duty SEALs, and with that comes an expected lack of acting talent. Line delivery during most of the movie is what one can expect from non-actors. The villains fair better with the line delivery, however, leading to an awkward situation where they seem more real and relatable than the good guys. The SEALs really come into their own during the film’s numerous action sequences, as can be expected.
The plot of the movie is strung together by scenes of exposition, and every transition into another portion of the world has a map overlay that makes it feel like the loading screens from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trilogy. Generally, the entire narrative structure of the movie feels like a generic military shooter. It pains me to compare the narrative of a film to a video game to highlight its shortcomings, but that really is the tone of the film. Adding further to the video game allusions are the numerous first person perspective shots where the audience gets to see what the SEAL sees. I do not recall any first person kills, but the resemblance was uncanny.
Oh, a positive to note, the film had quite wonderful sound design. Well, as far as the bullets whizzing past and the gun reports go. I did find myself getting sick of the repeated squelching sounds of the many, many headshots in the film. Seriously, there were a lot of headshots. One would think they stumbled into a zombie movie part way through.
I would say watch it just to see how SEALs actually operate. Do not, however, expect a good film, or even an okay film.
I wonder if the FPS allusions were deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. Act of Valor, while on the surface level being a tribute to the SEALs who have fallen in service to their country, is part of a Navy recruitment initiative. What better way to increase interest in the Navy amongst the new generation than by tapping into the video game zeitgeist? Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 earned a mind numbing $400 million in the US and UK in its first 24 hours alone, with Call of Duty: Black Ops (developed by the much derided Treyarch) making a cool $360 million in first day sales. That is big money and a large potential audience for a film of this kind.
There is big money in the macho, testosterone fuelled and highly fetishised portrayal of war, and it seems like that is all that big media will cater to. It is a safe investment and it makes people feel like they too can be a hero. We are a generation of armchair Operators. Soldiers on the digital front.
With that said, let us segue into the second part of this entry.
So last night I played Spec Ops: The Line, hence why this review wasn’t posted then. It got me thinking, here is a military shooter that uses all the game play elements seen in popular third person shooters (A cover system, two weapon limit, regenerating health, turret sections, an “A380” section for lack of a better term) and subverts them to drive a knife into the player’s conscience and twist. It is a game that hates you for wanting to enjoy war. It is a game that punishes you for wanting to be the hero. It is also a game that raises interesting questions about obsession, morality, and choice on the battlefield.
Spec Ops: The Line has one of the most interesting and horrifying stories I have seen in any game and it stands on the polar opposite of Act of Valor.
Spec Ops pushes the message that war is a hell of our own making and that the road to war, though paved with good intentions, is a road leading straight to hell. It reduces Delta Operators to fallible and corruptible. It brings into question whether men can truly even understand the truth of what they are witnessing, and foresee the consequences of their actions.
Act of Valor is a film that glamorises the Navy SEALs and military intervention. It is hero worship with the aim to pay tribute to servicemen with one hand, and draw in fresh blood with the other.
It is really encouraging seeing the ever demonised video game medium pushing an anti-violence, anti-hero worship message. I would like to explore more sides of war than the one that makes it look like a good idea enacted by just and honourable men.