A movie whose cinematic ineptitude is matched only by its ideological rottenness, Act of Valor features a cast of real-life active-duty Navy SEALS in order to grant the project’s us-versus-them geopolitical worldview a sham moral authority. Essentially a lousy globe-hopping military actioner, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s film uses the fact that its characters are not only playing versions of their supposedly heroic selves, but are all genuinely good-natured family men and gentle beings away from the international battlefield, to endow every explosion, every endless outcropping of gunfire, with the ethical weight that people who think the war on terror is smart foreign policy might attribute to some nebulous cause like the defense of freedom.
Actually, since the movie’s farfetched narrative is a perfect illustration of the official American narrative of worldwide terrorism (a transglobal network that encompasses Filipino Jihadists, Chechen rebels, and Mexican drug cartels; the notion that people want to attack the United States for no other reason than that they’re evil; and the nobility of American servicemen who lay down their life not for some dubious imperialist concern, but for the literal protection of the homeland), one can be excused for coming away from the film thinking that the United States is under very real threat and only the elite Navy SEALS can save us. Except that, as propaganda, the film is laughable, because its feeling for how to structure a narrative, work with nonprofessional actors, and shoot and cut action scenes is so far below competent that the actual experience of watching it is to resort to scratching one’s head at the puzzling collation of poorly wedded, disparate elements being aggressively thrown in the viewer’s way.
Beginning with a letter-to-a-fatherless-son framing device and a pre-deployment beachside luau, the film quickly establishes the men’s unimpeachable character (they all value family and brotherhood) and “surprising” personalities (one likes abstract painting!). That’s it for complexity, at least of the character-building variety, as the soldiers quickly become indistinguishable as they’re thrown into a head-spinning narrative that, so ineptly is it established, takes a good 20 minutes before we can begin to make sense of it. But after awhile it’s easy enough to get the gist: A bunch of cartoonish terrorists are planning an attack on the homeland and our guys jump from country to country, disregarding national sovereignty while thwarting their enemies at every turn. There’s never any doubt that what these men are doing is perfectly correct, an impression reinforced by the fact that, in the film’s world, a very real terrorist threat is in fact menacing the United States, and by the depiction of the soldiers as such expert technicians that they never, ever, kill any innocents. As violent and chaotic—and given the rapid cutting and indifferent framing, ultimately dull—as the action scenes are, the men’s wartime behaviors are always cool and precise. No fog of war exists for these elite warriors.
No moral dilemma or wider geopolitical understanding does either. When a SEAL leader explains to a Mexican counterpart that the terrorists are “no big fan of ours,” referring to the jihadists’ animosity toward the United States, it’s with an air of incomprehension, one shared by McCoy and Waugh’s movie. Failing to move beyond its simplistic grasp of world politics, or to even speculate about the way in which aggressive American military action might lead to resentment and reprisal among non-Western nations, the film sells us the same bill of goods that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the endless quagmire in Afghanistan, and the resultant rise of anti-U.S. terrorism. The befuddled SEAL may not understand why they hate us, but the attitudes perpetuated by Act of Valor—however sloppily communicated by the filmmakers’ slash-and-burn visual snatches—might begin to provide a clue.