Wednesday, February 29, 2012

‘Act of Valor’: a Different Kind of Reality

One of the manifestations of the Hollywood elite is the standard formula of any movie involving war, particularly those conflicts of the Bush era (either Bush – Three Kings had that anti-military odor to it, that air that soldiers are losers or corrupt cynics, a darker remake of Kelly’s Heroes).  As for recent fare, there have been a rash of critically acclaimed box office bombs like In the Valley of Elah (dehumanized soldiers), Rendition (sure, we like torture), Green Zone (drum up an excuse to invade Iraq), Lions for Lambs (two college students want to change the world by enlisting for Afghanistan, with predictable results – oh, if only they had listened to their professor), The Kingdom (it’s hopeless, why are we even trying?), No End in Sight (Bush personally bungled the war, and it’s a documentary, so it has to be true, right?), Stop Loss (dissent is the highest form of patriotism . . . under a Republican president), Redacted (soldiers rape children), Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore) – there are more to be sure, following in the dirge-like footsteps of Viet Nam and the egregious Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and (admit it) Apocalypse Now.  Even Avatar couldn’t resist the culture – Pocahontas in blue, with the evil Europeans replaced by a 22nd-century mercenary Marine force hell-bent on destroying Paradise for money.  There are some rare examples of movies where the American soldier gets a decent break – We Were Soldiers, Blackhawk Down, or even Hurt Locker – but these are rare.

Here now is Act of Valor – a different film, in a number of ways, but let me first say that it is one well worth seeing.  (Actually, no – it needs to be seen.)  The main buzz is that the operators in the movie are actual Navy SEALs, with the cast fleshed out by bona fide actors and actresses.  I am already on record for keeping the spotlight off these highly adept professionals, but I simply don’t know another way to portray this story in such realistic terms, and it was done with the blessing and assistance of SOCOM for what they freely admit is a recruiting tool – and a realistic one at that too, showing the sacrifice along with the ‘glory’ that instantly fades under fire; a call to arms for those who need to know what they will be getting into.  All incidents in the movie are recreations – using live fire – of actual incidents that have occurred to Team members.  As a movie qua movie, I’ll be the first to admit that none of the operators are likely to be up for an Academy award, but that kind of award simply doesn’t matter to them.  The cinematography is compelling (night HALO jumps, SWCC boats lighting up a string of narco-terrorist trucks, an overhead of a nuclear sub just below the surface), and so is the storyline – compelling and believable, with the actors turning in good performances on their own.  It is a movie not so much for entertainment as it conveys a message – these operators care in ways far beyond what most civilians can comprehend.  I hope that this sets and extends a trend, and we see some examples of modern Marines and Rangers as well as the ever-suffering grunt.

But the usual Hollywood crowd just can’t leave it alone, and their lock-step reviews are predictable (key word: ‘propaganda’).  Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post conjures the thought of how film-makers can turn themselves so totally over to a film that crosses the line into propaganda, and questions “whether the military should be in the movie business at all”.  Among other blithering examples, she also extols the “Obama era of surgical warfare” – the term being an invention of the State Department, not Defense, with its expectation that the norm in warfare is to somehow always avoid collateral damage.  Or there is Salon and David Sirota, who accuses the filmmakers of wanting us to forget our “imperialist misadventures”.  His review laments the true art of what the movie should be; somehow, the operators never question what they’re doing, which shows that Sirota simply doesn’t get it.  (He does draw a contrast to Charlie Sheen’s 1990 portrayal in Navy SEALs, but I regret to say that his character was based on a real person.)  Other critics parrot the same trend (as an example).

Decide for yourself.  The movie has some artistic flaws, but see if you can watch and understand the reason for the message.  These are real people, who put their lives on the line with no expectation of reward.  You owe it to them and the others like them – even those beyond the known boundaries of the community – to listen to what they say.

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