Act of Valor
Posted February 25, 2012 by Daniel Hodgson in
Act of Valor is a not a movie. It’s a 100 minute recruitment ad for the U.S. Navy that you have to pay to see. It treats soldiers and war like a video game, complete with computer overlays, HUD enhancements, and map screens lifted from a game menu. Act of Valor, in its own way, does a disservice to those it purports to dedicate itself to.
SEAL Team #7 is charged with rescuing a CIA operative from a drug cartel that has connections to a terrorist. The team infiltrates the cartel’s compound, using snipers to silently pick off one guard after another. They recover the spy, and after a chase through the jungle, return to safety. It turns out the terrorist is making his way to American soil with an undetectable weapon, and the cartel’s drug lord factors into his plan.
The members of the team are all but anonymous. Before their mission, the team sits around a camp fire on the beach, and one of the team members describes his teammates in voice over. This kind of characterization is indirect and weak. This wouldn’t be a problem if the movie weren’t going for melodrama, and dependent upon attachment to the characters. During the first mission, someone called “Mikey” gets shot, and he may not make it. The sound drops out, the camera goes to slow motion, and the score swells dramatically. Unfortunately, we have no idea who the hell this “Mikey” guy is. He has no more identity than the cartel members they shoot at, and the scene does not evoke the emotion its going for.
The scene’s failure is a microcosm of the movie as a whole. The film is told in flashback by the team’s second-in-command, who writes a letter to his commanding officer’s unborn son, describing what it means to be a soldier. It’s not spoiling anything to say that the film ends with the funeral for the man who died in service to his country, but there’s no sense of loss in the scene because he isn’t developed as a character, so the ending, and the film itself, doesn’t pay off. There’s a perfunctory scene with his wife that establishes him as a married man, but we get no idea of who he is as an individual.
What we do get is aggressive use of point-of-view shots from the chief’s perspective, looking down the barrel of a rifle as he goes on his missions. The shots look like something out of a first-person shooter such as Modern Warfare or Call of Duty. Shots of this kind is nothing new to cinema. District 9 and Max Payne each had a shot of this kind, and Kick-Ass built a set piece around it. However, Act of Valor uses POV shots extensively throughout the film. This turns him into a video game character. Who is this man? How does he relate to his teammates? What does he like and dislike? No man is perfect, what are his flaws? There’s no sense of the loss of a unique human being who gave his life for his country. Even his death scene is video game-esque; the screen gets a blurred effect like a game avatar running out of hit points.
The films stars former Navy SEALs. These guys are not actors, but they’re forced into shallow roles regardless, instead of allowing them to just be themselves. Dialog scenes are awkward, as they stand around uncomfortably exchanging clunky expository dialog without the slightest interest in each other or what they’re saying. There’s no chemistry, no conversational rhythm.
Is it respectful to those who serve to have their missions treated like Hollywood set pieces on a thrill ride movie? Doesn’t the film’s depiction of its leads as faceless cheapen their sacrifice–wouldn’t the loss of a soldier carry more weight if Act of Valor spent more time fleshing them out as characters, and less time on sweeping shots of helicopters, carriers and submarines? The film also mentions 9/11 to extort terror from the audience, and note that the film ends with patriotic country music in attempt to connect with a vulnerable demographic; truly, Act of Valor shows no shame in its transparent manipulation of the audience. It doesn’t help that the narration to a fictitious child condescends to the audience, and both audience and those who serve deserve better than this.