'Act of Valor': The Military's Bid for an Authentic War Movie Pays Off

The film that started as a recruiting video gives Naval Special Warfare its due.

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Relativity Media

It is disingenuous to call Act of Valor a work of propaganda. The film, which opens nationwide this weekend, is neither hyper-patriotic nor prescriptive of what America should be doing around the world. Rather, it would seem to be a plain assertion of what we are already doing. Filmed with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy and starring actual SEALS who've seen war and will see war again, the production is an interesting experiment for the secretive U.S. Special Operations Command. Twenty-five years after its inception and 10 years into its hardest and most costly call to duty, here is an official stamp on how the special operations community wants to be recognized.

In a bracing exchange earlier this month, Lieutenant General James Vaught, a retired former U.S. Army Delta Force commander, excoriated Admiral William McRaven, commander of USSOCOM, for the SEAL publicity machine: "Since the time when your wonderful team went and drug bin Laden out and got rid of him, and more recently when you went down and rescued the group in Somalia, or wherever the hell they were, they've been splashing all of this all over the media."

He continued, "Now I'm going to tell you, one of these days, if you keep publishing how you do this, the other guy's going to be there ready for you, and you're going to fly in and he's going to shoot down every damn helicopter and kill every one of your SEALs. Now, watch it happen. Mark my words. Get the hell out of the media."

McRaven countered that "there have always been portrayals of [special operations forces] in the mainstream media," adding that in the age of social networks, crowd sourcing, and 24-hour news cycles, complete operational secrecy is exceedingly difficult and oftentimes counterproductive. While crucial methods and strategies must always remain behind the veil, certain failures, for example, when brought to light, keep special operations forces accountable and bound to a higher standard. "The spotlight on us actually makes us better."

It's impossible to say whether Act of Valor will give enemies of the state ideas on how better to counter SEAL assaults. It's pretty clear, though, that Act of Valor will give enemies of the state serious reservations about their chosen professions. The film has a straightforward plot involving arms dealers, drug cartels, and Islamic terrorists. But it's the same kind of plot that might be found in a Jackie Chan film. It exists only to connect the set pieces. And here is where the beauty of the film can be found.

The same delights of a night at the symphony or competitive figure skating so apply to the SEALs on screen. It is the beauty of technical precision. Of perfect form. Of every movement, clean and with purpose and character. The SEALs are like a team of gold medalists in the Olympic sport of warfare. They have an easiness and alertness that simply can't be faked or fixed with CGI. Films don't often achieve this effect. War movies, in particular, are generally a disaster by-the-numbers. "Not bad" is rendered "good enough" with creative editing, but though an actor might wear a uniform and carry a rifle, it's always just a costume and a prop.

Not so, here. No doubt there were many takes for every scene, and every manipulative camera trick in the book. But the thing impossible to forget, the thing that sticks in the brain throughout the film, and after, is that everything these men do on screen, they do for real. Presented are not invincible men of steel manufactured by the military-industrial complex, but real men who perform remarkable feats for a living. It has, in short, an unimpeachable authenticity. Lethal warriors land perfect head shots, but they also take stray bullets and fall dead. The violence is brutal in its clinical application, and never does any of it seem trivial or fun.

To be sure, nothing should ever be taken at face value. Everyone has an agenda with this film. The navy wants an effective recruiting tool for a certain kind of man. (And did they ever find it!) U.S. Special Operations Command wants to definitively turn the page on such disasters as Camp Nama and direct attention away from unfortunate but often unavoidable civilian casualties. The filmmakers want a low-budget, high-profile box office bonanza. And the SEALs want to show off a little. (As goes the old joke: How do you know when there's a SEAL at your party? He'll tell you.)

But the simple truth is these SEALs have earned the right to strut their stuff. They are the best the navy has to offer, and the collective sacrifices they and their families have made since the terrorist attacks on September 11 are immeasurable. The film closes with a dedication to the men of Naval Special Warfare killed in action. Their names scroll up the screen. And scroll. And scroll. And if it wasn't clear before, clarity soon sets in that this community has suffered tremendous losses, but moves ever forward, courageous and undaunted. The best men.