Young American boys (including myself) have been running around with toy/imaginary weapons pretending to be soldiers for millenia, and have been watching TV shows and movies about the military for decades. Growing up, I was a big fan of the G.I. Joe cartoon, the CBS TV show about Vietnam Tour of Duty, and I still believe that the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers is one of the finest filmed anything ever made.
But first person shooter video games like the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises took the genre now being called "militainment" to a new level, allowing new generations to control virtual soldiers in increasingly realistic war zones. The potential for these games to entice young gamers into enlisting has not been lost on the military, which even created its own game, America's Army, and distributed it for free, landing it in the top 10 list of all downloadable games. As Peter Singer, the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution told NPR, "One study found that the game (America's Army) had more impact on actual recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined."
So perhaps the new film Act of Valor is the logical next step in militainment -- and after coming in at number one in its opening weekend, it appears to be a profitable one. Instead of actors, Act of Valor uses real-life active-duty Navy SEALs in starring roles, using state-of-the-art tactics, weaponry, and technology to re-create actual missions which are then tied together with a fictional story about terrorists attempting to smuggle suicide bombers with undetectable explosive vests into the United States. There's even an abundance of footage from helmet-mounted cameras that is almost indistinguishable from what you would see in one of the better military-themed first person shooters. But is this an appropriate way to get young people interested in the military? And even if it isn't, can it still make for a good movie?
Watch my ReThink Review of Act of Valor below (transcript below the video).
Act of Valor isn't your regular action movie. It stars real-life Navy SEALs, members of America's most elite special operations force, as they re-create five actual missions and tie them together with a fictional story about terrorists trying to smuggle suicide bombers with undetectable explosive vests into the U.S. This is an unprecedented collaboration, which raises all sorts of sticky issues about Hollywood's often cozy relationship with the military and studios' willingness to be used as tools for recruitment, public relations, and pro-war propaganda in exchange for the use of military resources. But another issue is whether this can still make for a good movie.
One of the main reasons the attention-shy SEALs agreed to play such an integral role in Act of Valor is to provide a more accurate depiction of who the SEALs are and how they work. Because their missions are so sensitive, dangerous, and high-stakes -- like the killing of Osama bin Laden -- SEALs are probably the most highly-trained, highly-disciplined soldiers in the military. The secrecy surrounding the SEALs is reflected in their members, who are known for quiet professionalism, humility, and avoiding the spotlight. They relax and joke when off duty, but they're able to compartmentalize any issues at home and put their personalities aside when they're on a mission.
It's important to show people, especially impressionable kids, that the SEALs aren't the bloodthirsty, unstable, death-wish-having, rebellious hotshots you often see in movies. The problem is that it makes the SEALs in Act of Valor kind of boring, which is not helped by the fact that the SEALs are, predictably, not terribly good actors. Most of the SEALs only get two sentences of backstory, and all you really know about their two leaders is that one has a family and surfs and the other has a pregnant wife. Audiences are drawn to emotion, conflict, idiosyncratic personalities, and characters we can relate to, but you don't get much of that in Act of Valor. In fact, the most interesting characters are the two villains, an Islamic Chechen terrorist and a Jewish smuggler (who are both played by actors).
The action scenes in Act of Valor were designed by the SEALs and employ up-to-date tactics, technology, and weaponry. It's pretty amazing seeing how the world's most elite soldiers work, including their meticulous planning, the jargon they use, how they avoid detection, and how they improvise when plans go south. The SEALs have an attitude and way of moving that would be nearly impossible for actors to replicate, and some of the scenes even use live ammunition.
But, there's a problem with this, too, since the SEALs are supported and often saved by THE LARGEST MILITARY IN THE WORLD. In most movies, you root for the scrappy underdog to beat their big, rich, powerful opponent. While I'm not saying that we should be rooting for the terrorists in Act of Valor, the SEALs are on the side of that big, rich, dominating power, and while the SEALs are definitely risking their lives, and it can be fun watching your team kicking ass and taking names, the guys they're fighting don't have a chance against such overwhelming firepower and logistical support. It's a little like watching someone gamble and rooting for the house to win.
But it was hard shaking the feeling that I was watching EXACTLY what the military wanted me to see. When there were POV shots, I wondered if this was a creative choice, or a way to replicate the look of military-based first person shooters like 'Call of Duty' or the Pentagon-created 'America's Army' since the military knows that games like these increase recruitment and get kids thinking positively about the military, and not the justness of the foreign policy it's serving. Are there political motivations behind highlighting tunnels under the Mexican border, or having one of the villains be a greedy Jew with a big nose? Does Act of Valor reinforce the dangerous trend of blind soldier worship we have in the U.S., where we're supposed to "support the troops no matter what," which usually becomes "support the war and don't reduce their budget no matter what"?
Despite the well-executed action, Act of Valor has fundamental problems as a film. And since I felt like I was, in many ways, watching a recruitment video, I was suspicious that every frame of Act of Valor was meant to convince kids to join the military. That might be an unfair assessment, but it's how I felt, which is why I give Act of Valor a What the Flick rating of 4.8. I'm Jonathan Kim for What the Flick.