March 26, 2023
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‘Act of Valor’: Militaristic plot lacks command

Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s “Act of Valor” offers a tense story with mesmerizing visuals, though it has strong propagandizing undertones.

Starring active service U.S. Navy SEALs, the action movie follows a fairly standard template. During a mission to rescue a kidnapped CIA operative (Roselyn Sanchez), the SEALs uncover a massive terrorist plot. And the clock is ticking.

The simplistic plot is not enhanced by original characterization or acting. The SEALs are depicted as blue-blooded, American family men. Their civic duty is sacred, passed from father to son in the eternal defense of freedom and democracy. While
McCoy and Waugh strive for realism, the stilted acting of the SEALs themselves often heightens the awareness of the film’s artifice.

Thus, McCoy and Waugh, with the assistance of cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, devote much of their efforts to capturing action sequences in as visually arresting a way as possible. It is in these sequences that “Act of Valor” works best. The way the filmmakers shoot these scenes compensates for an overall lack of realism, plunging the viewer into gritty, expertly executed combat.

Particularly interesting is the choice to film many of the mission scenes in the style of a first-person shooter game. Thankfully, the filmmakers fill in the blanks that video games leave out, such as a soldier draping a blanket over a victim of torture before rescuing them. The film shows that being a soldier is not a game, but a sacred duty that only a “damn few” are capable of shouldering.

But this pro-military rhetoric pervades every aspect of “Act of Valor.” Even as it subverts such video game logic, it serves also as a recruitment video. Soldiers make the greatest sacrifice, and so indebted civilians must rise to take their place.

Audiences unprepared to accept the film’s moral absolutes — that the military is an unquestionable symbol of justice — are going to find themselves uncomfortable. “Act of Valor” has a very explicit objective of making war seem like the noblest endeavor. There is no balanced picture being offered here — only black and white, and right and wrong.

However, while no amount of striking visuals will overcome the film’s pro-war propaganda, McCoy and Waugh deserve credit for communicating this absolute message effectively.