An expensive Navy SEAL training video turned feature length action picture, Act of Valor has a clear goal in mind: to re-instill a sense of power and danger in the global representation of the American soldier. This ideology seeps through each low-angle composition and slow-motion camera shot, every waving flag and glorious setting sun. It’s a kind of blatant aesthetic manipulation that helps simplify complex global and political issues when things get messy, creating a nicely compartmentalized world where lightning quick kill shots and split-second decisions are easily explained and justified. Propaganda has always been apart of wartime filmmaking, but not since John Wayne’s The Green Berets has a movie been so unabashedly dedicated to lionizing our armed forces in times of duress.
Act of Valor
begins with a globe-trotting montage that borders on incomprehensible, jumping from a terrorist bombing in the Philippines to sunny San Diego
where the film’s heroes, an elite Navy SEAL unit, rigorously train for battle and spend time with their families. A gruff but lyrical voiceover by one of the sailors establishes a predetermined sense of honor and sacrifice, a poetic nature that elevates these characters beyond earthly status. These men are not characters but symbols of mechanized instinct, unflinching and unwavering no matter the situation.
The SEALs are finally pressed into action when a DEA agent is kidnapped in Costa Rica, leading to an all-out assault on a rebel base that showcase the film’s main attraction - pinpoint tactical precision. The rescue mission uncovers an even more elaborate plot by a Chechen militant to smuggle suicide bombers through the U.S./Mexico border, ultimately bringing the narrative full circle in a south-of-the-border shootout that echoes the bloody finale of The Wild Bunch.
The warriors at the center of Act of Valor’s ramshackle plot are not actors but active-duty SEAL team members credited only by their first names in an effort to sustain strict anonymity. Since the main concern here is not the dimensionality or nuance of performance, the acting is wooden and thankless. Even more frustrating is the filmmaker’s pure devotion to the first-person-shooter POV, a stylistic device made popular by by countless video games and adopted here to simulate a sense of realism during the more chaotic action moments.
So it makes sense that Act of Valor is often obsessed with shifting eye-lines, or the scope of vision a particular soldier shares with the surrogate viewer. Ironically, when co-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh film the action in wide-angle, the combat imagery becomes far more horrific. The bird’s eye view shot of a swift boat unloading machine gun tracer fire on a jeep full of armed assailants might be Act of Valor’s most stunning image.
That Act of Valor ends with America’s finest making the ultimate sacrifice is not surprising, especially since the blatantly symbolic dialogue foreshadows as much from the very first frame. Still, it’s unforgivable that Act of Valor frames the essence of American diligence and pride through such a simplistic prism. True patriotism is a far more complex battle between self and country, even for military men devoted to the cause, and it’s a pertinent idea Act of Valor has no interest in addressing.