Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Ineffectual War Games: A Review of Act of Valor

In Film, Reviews on April 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm

by Matt Smith

I don’t know how I feel personally about Act of Valor the propaganda/recruitment flick co-financed by the U.S. Navy that stormed theaters several weeks ago and rode a pretty high wave at the Box Office for a bit. I know I don’t like it, but I don’t know how I’m meant to feel about it as someone who is outside the target audience. I don’t understand the appeal of this film to the general public, though I think it probably has a bit more to do with receptions of “reality” as opposed to a genuine patriotic interest in seeing our boys in camo decimate all those stereotypical terrorist entities. Not to say that isn’t part of the appeal, at least to certain segments of the population, but I don’t think it’s as large as some sections of the U.S. government might hope.

The action is spectacular. At least the first set piece. I will say that about the film. When they’re storming into the village in the Philippines and escaping by boat, the Seal team really lights up the screen, and everything from the cinematography to the choreography is completely on point. But then the high from how awesome that action piece is really gets to you. The rest of the movie is a total let down.

Yes, I know the film has no actors and that those are real U.S. Navy SEALs onscreen, basically playing themselves but with worse dialogue. But that gimmick wears off really early, particularly when the film seems completely invested in dragging itself down with a ludicrous story which requires the SEALs to do something other than be SEALs. There is a stupid, insipid, poorly-executed angle about the values of the American family, specifically the nuclear family at the focus of so many narratives about service members. It’s not just that this focus is so banal, but instead that it is so retrogressive to not only the general values of the modern United States, in which women and other minorities are not relegated to virtual non-entities within non-combat situations.

I’m sure that there is someone who could be more representative of the female contributions to our military than the single woman in this film, who never engages in combat or anything even remotely resembling it, but who serves in an intelligence position where she briefs the SEALs on their missions and analyzes the ways in which said missions should be executed. But, that someone never makes an appearance here, much like the token African-American members of the team, who, honestly, are so completely secondary to anything the film is interested in, I can barely even remember the faces of.

That we are given a film meant to exemplify the modern military and its glorious ability to secure our freedom in which so little of that way of life is actually shown as actually existing is only the biggest, most over-arching problem with Act of Valor.

The smaller problems add up and confound. The aesthetics the film employs are blatant rip-offs of video games, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series to be exact (or the Battlefield games, which features tie-in content based on the movie), right down to the first-person POV during various sequences of infiltration and the final scene which depicts a hero’s brush with death which is also in first-person POV. This ending goes so far as to emulate exactly the familiar fading and blurred red images of encroaching darkness as the “low-health” warnings in CoD:MW. But ripping off video games is not something new–so many action films do it that it doesn’t really even matter that much anymore. Instead, it’s the way the film does it that is a problem. There’s not even a pretense that the filmmakers behind Act of Valor had any interest in making the film not look exactly like a video game like Modern Warfare. This is not something movies should be doing so blatantly in any way shape or form, because it makes no sense as a film aesthetic. The medium does not require the short hand of video games to work for an audience.

And I like video games.

Which brings me back to the concept of reality that has been used to market the film. Is the deployment of these types of FPS shooter and war game shots within Act of Valor meant to further envelope us in how “real” what these SEALs are doing is? Because it does the opposite. It becomes a retread of something that is so blatantly unreal that it’s low-end virtual reality–training for war in some way. It’s simple indoctrination and without even the added value of playing a game with some friends on X-Box Live. If this is reality for our soldiers, and they face such ludicrously plotted insanity every mission as portrayed in this film, then I feel sorry for all of them. Because the movie’s representation of their work, and assumedly their sacrifice, is soulless and ineffectual, featuring no real emotion, and a whole lot of production value.

Act of Valor is the lowest common denominator for action and war cinema. It’s meat-headed, red-blooded Americana at its worst, with diminishing returns even in the excitement category. While the first action set is fairly entertaining, the film progressively becomes mired down in exaltations of manhood and the worth of having a family. I’m not even going to get into the groan-inducing voice-over which narrates and provides closure to the narrative by way of a letter written to a fallen soldier’s son. It, like the rest of the film, is pandering, unmitigated and absolute crap of the highest American order. Even Michael Bay is more restrained than this. This is little more than a recruiting video; cinema it is most certainly not.

1 out of 5 stars

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