Filmmakers have a lot in common with magicians. The history of cinema is a long story of technology and style seeking to dazzle one generation more than the one before it. Audiences get savvy and need to be fooled by something else. Styles need to change to produce a new product and express a “modern” vision. Currently, the found footage style is an ironic continuation of the march of progress. By mimicking amateur video skills and technology, the found footage filmmaker seeks to make the film more real and accessible to an audience used to this kind of careless photography.
This isn’t a new idea, of course, cinema verite inspired shaky handheld camera work for decades. Found footage also offers a great budget short cut for indie filmmakers, as it excuses them from the professional look that can eat up so much money. Smaller and better cameras now make it possible to capture points-of-view (POV) shots nearly impossible in the past. Rather than imitating the camera’s eye of the action, this kind of camera work simulates sight itself. Movies have crept closer to video games, and some filmmakers have made a bet that looking down the barrel of a gun will make the action even more immersive. The creators of Act of Valor wanted the audience to see a firefight through the eyes of a Navy SEAL, not just as a SEAL might see the fight, but as a real SEAL would see the fight through his goggles and his gun sight.
In this film, the assassination of a CIA station chief sends the SEALs on a global game of cat-and-mouse, first with drug dealers and finally with international terrorists. These troops are assigned mission after mission to end what is becoming a larger threat. As important as these missions are, it’s clear that supporting each other on and off the battlefield is at the heart of what these characters do.
Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh wanted to make a war movie after working with the Navy to create a training film. This access gave them the idea to use real SEALs instead of relying on actors to approximate the elite special operations force, not as advisors, but as actual performers. The basic idea is not original, as R. Lee Ermey was a real marine drill sergeant before Full Metal Jacket gave him a new career. Kirk Douglas served in the Pacific Theater of WW 2, and don’t forget Audie Murphy played himself in the movie adaptation of his book To Hell and Back.
As tempting as it is to think that experience equals the ability to create a simulation of that experience, it is by no means an immutable law. Jean-Claude Van Damme was a good fighter, once upon a time, but that doesn’t mean his films are any better for it. There are many more examples. Oscars go to people making movies that really affect us; it’s not an easy thing to do. Unfortunately, Act of Valor misses the outer ring of that target by a few yards. Nothing about this film would make you think it might get an Oscar, of course, but it isn’t even a very good action or war movie.
You don’t go to an action movie expecting great performances, but you also don’t want to cringe every time a character says something. The filmmakers must have known this, because most of the nuanced roles were given to real actors. Unfortunately, the film tries to develop the SEAL characters through dialogue they have to deliver. They try to act, but every line sounds hollow in delivery, something not helped by a script which hits every action movie cliche’ it can fit into the running time. Laughing is the automatic reaction to this dialogue, but it doesn’t feel right knowing what these guys really do for a living.
The film makes heavy use of DSLR cameras mounted on helmets, guns and other POVs. At worst, this makes the film look too much like Call of Duty and pulled me out of the film. There are some cool shots of rifles sweeping through jungle or creeping toward an enemy base, but there are so many of these shots that it dilutes the effect. Firefights seen through this POV are confusing, which is probably realistic, but doesn’t help the story any. This trick was probably supposed to make it all more real, more immediate, but most of the time is just plays like a gimmick the audience is too smart to fall for.
If you can ignore the dialogue, story and lengthy portions where nothing happens, there are a few action set pieces that are well done and worth watching. A SEAL raid brings unexpected reinforcements, which becomes a lengthy chase through the jungle and river. This is a sample of what the filmmakers were trying for. Yet, even these blisteringly loud and chaotic gunfights feel a little too polished. You can feel the Navy recruitment team watching the film over your shoulder, making sure things don’t get too real.
The story is that the Navy required the SEALs to participate in making the film and that the filmmakers were required to hand over all of their rough footage so the Navy could use it in recruitment and training videos later. I doubt any of these people expected the results of the film to be so counter to what they would have wished for. Honoring dedicated solders of all stripes is certainly something to be respected, but making a film as empty and thoughtless as this strikes me as disrespectful.
A wise director, whose name I have forgotten, once said that war films can never really capture the experience of warfare, they can only present a mediated representation. Trying to create a realistic war movie is a fool’s errand, and McCoy and Waugh would’ve been better off spending more time creating an interesting story told well than to sell propaganda made poorly. This is what makes a master illusionist different than a con artist. An illusionist can give the audience something, whether it be hope or awe, and a con artist only takes whatever he can, leaving the audience wondering what just happened.