By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Act of Valor is a land mine movie for anyone to review who isn't a military veteran, who hasn't bought into the cult of warfare. Like most faith-based movies, it's aimed squarely at an audience that will overlook considerable flaws because of its message. If you're not a true believer, what you think won't matter, anyway.
People fault the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but are still grateful for the service and sacrifices of soldiers. The same feeling is generated by Act of Valor, especially its climax when the personal toll of combat hits home. I'm thankful to have such brave, selfless warriors on our side in any fight. But that won't convince me that Act of Valor is a good movie.
Act of Valor originated (and succeeds most) as a recruitment tool, with the U.S. Navy providing co-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh unprecedented access to its special operations procedures. Authenticity isn't an issue, with active duty Navy SEALs playing lead roles anonymously, and access to weapons, drones, even a nuclear submarine that are usually kept classified so enemies don't know what we're packing.
The SEALs are much better at moving into strategic positions and pulling triggers than delivering Kurt Johnstad's dialogue, a string of macho declarations like "Being dangerous is sacred, a badge of honor" or "This is the blood that courses through your veins," when remembering a father who died in combat. Such words probably fall easier on the ears of those who have sacrificed. That doesn't make them good writing.
McCoy and Waugh explain in a behind-the-scenes prologue — a first in my movie memory — that the SEALs' devotion to duty led to the idea of making a feature film. And that's where problems begin, by taking a fine idea for a documentary and cheapening it with fiction.
Johnstad's plot seems cobbled from training exercises and Rambo movies, with hot spots in Mexico, Costa Rica, Angola and Ukraine linked by a terrorist scheme to smuggle suicide bomber vests into the United States. There's a rescue of a kidnapped CIA agent, and a compound assault that may be what Osama bin Laden's last minutes were like.
The combat sequences possess a visceral power in Black Hawk Down fashion, with live ammunition reportedly used, although presumably not for the graphic kill shots. Sometimes McCoy and Waugh slip into the shooter's point of view like a video game, urging viewers to share the thrill of the kill. Again, the way these sequences play depends upon the viewer's stomach for wartime violence.
Act of Valor will likely earn high praise from combat veterans and their families, the way movies like Fireproof and Seven Days in Utopia resonate with Christians. Civilians, movie critics and certainly pacifists won't be nearly as impressed.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.