A few weeks ago at the 2012 Oxford Film Festival, programmers screened an amazing documentary, Patriot Guard Riders, about a group of veterans who formed a biker gang to protect families from organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church that protest at the funerals of dead soldiers. Although there’s a certain kind of sensationalist appeal to the idea of burly, leather-clad soldiers drawing a (literal) line between protective, militaristic resoluteness and tenderness to grieving families, the ultimate point of director Ellen Frick’s film is to draw attention to the immediate repercussions, the human toll on an individual level, of wars like the one in Iraq. And even though it’s dramatically different in both story and execution than Patriot Guard Riders, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s Act of Valor sets out to do the same thing, from recruiting actual Navy SEALS to play its stars to creating an adventure that thoroughly chronicles both the honor soldiers deserve and the sacrifice they make while serving their country.
The fledgling feature effort from McCoy and Waugh, who direct under the pseudonym Bandito Brothers, Act of Valor narrowly avoids being a Navy recruitment film because of its often harshly realistic depiction of battle, but it nevertheless feels like a particularly authentic if still hokey b-grade action movie disguised as a military tribute rather than the other way around.
The film was written by Kurt Johnstad, who between this, 300 and its sequel is becoming a reliable purveyor of red-meat, man-sized action films. The story follows a close-knit group of SEALs (all played by active-duty soldiers) who rescue a kidnapped CIA operative (played by actress Roselyn Sanchez) only to uncover a sinster – and imminent - terrorist threat. Sent into action to stop bomb-strapped foot soldiers from penetrating the border and detonating their weapons in major cites, the SEALs find their mettle tested in life-or-death circumstances that will not only determine their fate, but that of millions of unknowing American citizens.
From the film’s opening scene, Act of Valor exudes authenticity, as the soldiers dive out of an airplane and the directors appear to follow right behind them. But notwithstanding the comparatively more conventional thrill-seeking, things actually escalate from there; amazingly, Waugh and McCoy have revealed in interviews that their cast members were actually dodging real gunfire in scenes like the riverside shootout between a baddie-filled pickup and a minigun-toting boat, and the majority of what happens in the story, including some gory and unexpected twists, were all inspired by actual events. Rather than simply being filed under “the truth is stranger than fiction,” however, these plot developments are addressed in a way that feels fully realistic, as the soldiers deal with each set of circumstances with cool practicality, leaving room for their emotions to be unleashed after the rest of the team is safe.
While none of the SEALS will likely be burning up Hollywood casting lists any time soon, the entire ensemble does a good job of maintaining a believable atmosphere of dedication, camaraderie, and self-actualization; instead of placing a Hollywood screenwriter’s cartoonish “hot shot who lives fast and plays by his own rules” among their ranks, these are men who soberly fulfill their duties, understand what’s at risk, and acknowledge their part in an overall team. And even if they don’t quite define themselves strongly as individuals (perhaps on purpose), their performances create thoughtful portraits of men and women in uniforms that don’t feel overly or unnecessarily dramatized. (In fact, some might defensibly critique the film for under-dramatizing them, but PTSD has become as familiar a trope as monolithic heroism, and this film errs on the latter side of that spectrum, albeit softly.)
Whether or not the film is a live-action first-person shooter video game, or some form of propaganda, is up to the individual viewer. But there are few action films today – even ones without casts populated by actual soldiers - that aren’t guilty of either (or both) of those offenses in some way; and most of those don’t feature injuries and even fatalities that for this critic’s money balance out any of the “hoo-rah” glory that one could glean from going into battle. This one, however, does.
Ultimately, there’s a panoply of angles from which filmmakers can look at wartime service - be it sensationally, psychologically, or even metaphorically – and Act of Valor does so practically: the Banditos’ debut might not be the most intimate of portraits, or even the most emotionally engaging, but it’s one that attempts narrative honesty and even-handedness, and manages neither to be maudlin nor glib. And even if the film doesn’t quite let its audience get to know the individuals on screen, it at least successfully communicates that these are real people, in circumstances with real stakes, making it a meaningful tribute to soldiers and their sacrifices that also doubles as a genuinely entertaining adventure.