Act of Valor can’t be looked at like other films, as it fits in its own created category. It’s the best film about Navy SEALs starring Navy SEALs, which of course tells you nothing. It’s a little like Courageous (really a sermon, but a good one), or The Artist (a one-time experiment that worked). It’s not a work of art, or really entertainment in the usual sense. Act of Valor is an action film, a recruitment piece, a fictionalized documentary, and unlike anything out right now.
In film school, we studied the role of story and the role of spectacle in film. Spectacle can be whatever grabs or entertains you that is outside of the story. It’s Judy Garland singing, or Gene Kelly dancing, Jim Carrey doing his physical comedy, or Carmen Miranda just standing there. It may be just barely connected to the story, but it’s the wow factor that makes some films so enjoyable. Here, the wow factor is real SEALs doing the action, and how much you like the film is to a great extent dependent on how that grabs you. I’m the product of two WWII vets, and I have a huge soft spot in my heart for the military. I have a great deal of respect for every serviceman and –woman, and both gratitude and admiration for the most highly trained personnel in the various branches. That made this film an enjoyable ride for me.
The acting, to be kind, is terrible. There are a few real actors, most notably Roselyn Sanchez of TV’s Without a Trace. Those real actors help carry the narrative burden of the plot, which involves international terrorism and scary terrorist alliances. Those scenes that move that along are not embarrassing, and help tie the film together with a degree of believability. The scenes of the SEALs relating to their families or one another in non-combat situations—well, those are something else.
Act of Valor also a Rorschach test. It’s not really political, but those of a political mind will find it so (as they do most everything else). How you feel about the military and our involvement in the affairs of other countries may well color how you take in the film. If you look at it as you would the Oscar-nominated films of 2011, you’d be disappointed and would miss the point. It’s about the spectacle of real trained men and women doing the things we only think we see in other action films.
As an action film, Act of Valor just stumbles along, its scenes of daring sometimes just barely held together by a rescue mission that unearths other dangers and connections that must be dealt with. The film is so focused on the SEALs and their work that it’s curiously involving at times in terms of the plot, which in other hands could be shocking or horrific. The cool and detachment of the central characters unhappily makes the film almost too detached and flat emotionally. The film eschews emotional highs and lows, as it focuses on the work of the SEALs, whose job it is to stay cool and detached. We’re tied in as viewers to what the SEALs are doing, but their “get the job done” approach pushes drama away. Great for them in real life; less great for the viewer. The action sequences have the same approach, and are both amazing (look at what they are really doing!) and lacking in dramatic structure and impact. Not going Hollywood sometimes has its downs.
Be warned: This is not a kid’s movie; it’s R for a reason. No sex or nudity, but the violence is rough at times, though never dwelt on for its own sake. Some is even implied or shown indirectly, but this film is still filled with torture, combat, explosions and flying bullets. The language, again not exploitative, is what you’d expect from people doing dastardly deeds and from those trying to stop them.
Though it has its moments of visual beauty, I doubt I’ll ever use this in my film class as any kind of example of the art of film. As a dramatized look inside what some of the bravest and most highly trained among us are doing, however, I appreciated the chance to glance inside.