As drama, Act of Valor is no great shakes.
But as a docudrama recreation of how America’s most elite fighting force goes about its dangerous business, it is pretty awesome.
This was a daring move for a couple of reasons.
For one, SEALs almost never go public or allow their faces to be disseminated (at least while they’re still on active duty). The missions they undertake are so sensitive, so dangerous, so wrapped up in high-level security that these warriors cannot share many of their exploits even with members of their own families.
Moreover, in this era of international terrorism, just being identified as a former SEAL could make these men or their loved ones targets.
So on some level it was risk even for these SEALs to appear on screen. Which is no doubt why they’re not identified in the credits.
You can find out who played the Screaming Mom or Yacht Girl #3 or a Somalian, but you’re denied the identities of the fellows who played the main characters.
Casting real SEALs was daring on a second level because...well, because they’re SEALs, not actors.
Yeah, they look and move with authenticity. And none of them is truly awful. They seem relatively at ease in front of the camera. And basically they’re playing themselves, so it’s not like amateurs were asked to undergo a startling transformation.
But they’re not professional actors and it shows.
Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay asks these fighting men to share some dramatic moments. For instance, there’s a subplot about one SEAL whose goes off on a dangerous mission while his wife is expecting their first child.
Now, the SEAL actors are fine when asked to talk in military speak. Heck, they’re fluent in it.
But playing a character, digging for emotional meaning in the dialogue, finding subtle ways of expressing inner turmoil...these are not skills taught on Parris Island.
The unintentional result is that the real trained actors in the cast give much more interesting performers than the SEALS. Especially the actors playing the villains.
In this case our main baddies are a South American drug-and-armaments runner called Christo (Alex Veadov) and his old friend, a Chechen jihadist named Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle). They’re plotting to smuggle onto American soil a dozen or so exploding vests that can’t be found through X-rays or metal detectors.
So while the SEALs seem pretty much interchangeable (maybe even a bit banal), the villains are colorful and riveting.
Act of Valor also suffers from borderline pretentious voiceover narration of the zen warrior variety.
Here’s what works in the film: The missions themselves.
This is probably as authentic a recreation of covert action as we’ll ever see on a movie screen. The preparations, the briefings, the planning, the weapons, the tactics...it all feels absolutely real.
Moreover, the film does a fine job of depicting the brotherhood of warriors. These fighting men are a unit both in and out of combat. They look after each other’s families, they work to make positive each other’s marriages. They do this because anything amiss at home can put an entire team out of balance while on a mission.
We see air drops, speedboat extractions, firefights. We go inside a nuclear submarine. We raid a pleasure yacht, a jungle compound where a female CIA agent is being tortured, a series of tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border.
There’s a whole lot of shooting and blowing stuff up. And unlike most action movies, it feels remarkably true.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.