Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Review: Act of Valor (2012)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

To my knowledge, this is the only movie ever to use active duty Navy SEALS in major roles, although they are not even individually identified in the credits. But, their participation permits a degree of realism not attainable with actors such as Charlie Sheen or Demi Moore. What the film may lack in budget, “name” actors, or production values is more than offset by authenticity. This alone makes Act of Valor virtually mandatory viewing for fans of the military film genre, and highly recommended for anyone who simply wants to better understand and appreciate the ethos of these rare and special people whose job it is to constantly risk their own lives to protect us.

The production is the brainchild of Michael “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh who co-produced and co-directed. McCoy, a former dirt bike champ and film extra, developed The Bandito Brothers production company along with fellow stunt man Waugh. The movie’s genesis may be found in a short feature they produced for the Navy in 2007. During filming, they got to know several SEALS. Conversations with that group led to the citing of numerous true acts of heroism, some of which were chosen as the basis for a possible future feature film. The producers hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad to develop a screenplay that would contain these specific actual acts of valor.
The Plot

The story follows seven of the members of the fictional “Bandito” platoon from SEAL Team 7 based at Coronado Island in San Diego, and includes four separate but interrelated military actions. After a brief introduction, the film grabs your attention with some great footage of the team conducting a training HALO jump near San Diego, then quickly switches to Manilla where we witness a suicide bombing that kills, among others, the American ambassador and his son. The mastermind, Abu Shabal, a Chechan jihadist, escapes. The scene again shifts-- this time to Costa Rica where CIA covert operative Lisa Morales is posing as a pediatrician while investigating drug smuggler Mikhail “Christo” Troykovich. Recent communication intercepts have indicated a possible relationship between Christo and Abu Shabal.

Morales’ cover has been compromised, however, and she is kidnapped, and her colleague murdered by Christo’s thugs. The mission becomes one of “personnel recovery”, and the team prepares for deployment (referred to as “going down range”) by assessing intelligence, tactics and contingencies. The platoon is lead by Lt. Rorke, and his platoon chief, Steve. Members are “Weimy” (the sniper), Ray (communications), “Sonny,” “Mikey,” and “Ajay.” They work with
Senior Chief Miller, the operations officer. After a hotly contested, ultimately successful action, the team gathers sufficient intelligence to tie Christo to Abu Shabal, and Christo is subsequently taken down on his yacht by SEAL team 4.Through interrogation, specifics are revealed of a plan to smuggle terrorists onto U.S. soil through a tunnel provided by Christo’s smuggling connections. The team enters into a desperate race against time to intercept and stop them.

So What Really Makes It So Authentic?

The decision to use active duty SEALS works well on many levels. Like the re-enactors in the film Gettysburg, the group insisted on accuracy above all else. This resulted in two key elements impacting the film making process. First, the SEALS planned the actual operational tactics used in the fictional engagements just as they would in real life. Second, they literally reworked significant amounts of dialogue so that the spoken words were more reflective of what might be expected of actual participants.

Much of the “Costa Rican” fire fight was filmed on the “live round” range at the John C. Stennis base in Mississippi. The filmmakers were initially scared to death, but eventually agreed it created a level of intensity or adrenaline rush that could not be otherwise duplicated. By working with the actual team, the latest in weapons technology is fully displayed. The viewer cannot help but be awed when viewing the sniper, tracer, and artillery fire instantly turning bad guy’s pick up trucks into swiss cheese. Watching the SEALS silently rise out of the water, rifles at the ready is a thing of beauty as is the night HALO jump into Costa Rica. In another film first, two of the Seals who are headed to Somalia to monitor Abu Shabal’s movements get picked up by an actual active duty nuclear submarine.

The Theme

The point of the film is to more closely explore the bond of brotherhood, code of honor, and sense of duty developed by these guys. They are completely squared away and the very best in the world at what they do. In an “extra” feature from the Blu-Ray disc containing interviews with the SEALS featured in the film, the individual who played “Lt. Rorke” makes a statement that really stood out to me, and is extremely telling. During the all too frequent funerals he has attended for lost comrades, there is always a small part of every survivor that is secretly a bit envious of their fallen brothers because there is no more honorable way to meet one’s death. Much of this is stated quite eloquently at the end of the film in a quote from the great Tecumsah about the code of the warrior, and was touched upon in my earlier review of the film The Duellists.

So Why Did Some Critics Pan It?

The film received numerous negative reviews from the “mainstream” reviewing community. A quick stroll through Rotten Tomatoes yields a 4.5 of 10 rating although 76% of readers liked the film. The consensus comments from so called “big name” reviewers such as Richard Corliss, Peter Travers, and Roger Ebert are couched in terms of cliched script, stilted acting, and jingoistic or non-nuanced point of view. Others called it nothing more than a recruiting film. That kind of comment more likely masks an anti-military orientation or a given reviewer’s personal political agenda. Perhaps they were happier with anti-war films such as Rendition, Lions for Lambs or In the Valley of Elah all of which bombed at the box office.

How far Hollywood seems to have fallen from the days of support for the troops in WWII. This story moves along at a brisk pace, and I cannot really think of any wasted scenes. It seems absurd to complain about a script being a cliche when it is taken from a composite of real events, and there was not one point in the film where I felt like any of the lines being spoken were awkward, cheesy, or stilted. In fact, using real SEALS to speak them makes scenes with family and friends all the more touching.The people who made this film truly deserve our thanks and I highly recommend it.


47 comments:

Joel Farnham said...

Thanks Jed. I am going to try to find it on Netflix.

Tennessee Jed said...

You are very welcome, Joel. It should be easy to find, and well worth your time.

Tennessee Jed said...

L.O.L.: Lest anybody think my "spellcheck" wasn't working in the title, the "Boiler Room Elves" who (I presume) do layout work for Andrew, picked up a different copy of the same movie poster that I initially submitted, and the only difference is each uses a different spelling of the word "valor" or "valour" Interesting, as I type this on my iMac, the spelling function tries to correct the latter version.

I report, you decide. Haven't had this happen since the dual spelling of duelist. :)

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Re: the poster... that's interesting. They've never changed anything I've submitted to them. (After all, how many different posters could The Room possibly have.) :-D

Re: the film, it's definitely been on my radar for some time and I do have to admire these guys for making the movie and setting the bar pretty dang high for authenticity. With SEALs starring in it, I'd expect nothing less. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the film yet so I don't have much else to report.

I think the only danger - and this has nothing to do with your review - is being blind to any criticism whatsoever. I doubt the movie is perfect but the way many conservative websites talked about it (same with the Sarah Palin documentary or the Atlas Shrugged movie), you'd think this was the second coming of Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Yes, no doubt many mainstream critics panned it for strictly political reasons but one can criticize without being a hater, too.

(And yes, I understand the "starved for entertainment" thing, too, but there's plenty out there to enjoy - sometimes you just have to look for it.)

Anyway, good review and now I just need to see the movie. :-)

tryanmax said...

Like Scott, this movie is high on my radar, but I haven't gotten to it just yet. I'm intrigued because, while I feel authenticity is important, I tend to disagree that it is most important. Hopefully there weren't any obvious trade-offs.

Just to chime in on Atlas Shrugged, I think the film was decidedly over-praised by the right, just as it was over-panned by the left. (Which is probably reflective of what happened to Act of Valor.) While I found it to be a faithful adaptation, it lacked much of the impact of the novel and, frankly, would have been impossible to follow had I not already read the novel.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - in the hands of a lesser reviewer, that could be a problem, to be sure. I have not read every review ever written about this film. I did look at several reviewers who have national reputations. I think the other one I looked at was from USA Today (Puig, perhaps?) and they uniformly downgraded the film. The comments I included were pretty much a composite from that group.

Now I should mention I have screened this movie three times. Once by myself without having read anything about it, once with my son who was visiting, and with my brother-in-law after I had completed the review. A funny thing about any review. It will tend to color a viewer's judgement. If I read a review of yours, and then view the film, there will be a predilection, however slight, to look out for the things you mention and agree with them. Kind of an anchor effect.

With this film, I saw it without having read or seen any reviews. I did get a slight feeling that the cinematography was not "state of the art", but my actual gut feeling was that I was surprised just how good it did look.

As for the actors, none are the second coming of Marlon Brando. In a lot of dramas, professionals tend to over act. SEALS, by their very nature, tend to control and hide their emotions. There are a couple scenes where Rorke and Steve have their families at the beach. Maybe the dialogue sounds "wooden" but that is not the reaction I had. I guess I didn't even think about it.

As far as the story being a cliché, I am of the school of thought, it would be if it were not all true. I suppose it would be valid to make the same criticism I have made about the blatant sexism of the t.v. series Madmen. While it is true the sexism as presented is accurate, it might be overkill to have it all happen in each episode by everybody in the agency.

Here, I just felt I didn't get a feeling this story was too fantastic to be real. Maybe events would take place over a longer time frame, but hey, any film has to do that.

I agree with the idea that the modern military film seems hard for people to view objectively either way. In the end, I can only tell you how I responded to it (and sure I have my own bias,) urge readers to see it, and form their own conclusions

Tennessee Jed said...

Oh, and BTW, I forgot to add my l.o.l. after my tongue in cheek statement about "being in the hands of a lesser reviewer" ;)

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - Much like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Atlas Shrugged is a novel that is virtually impossible to successfully transfer to the screen. That said, I think they gave it an honest effort in both films.

I think when portraying real historical events, authenticity has to be a huge factor. Back in the 50's and early 60's, Prudential Insurance sponsored a 30 minute dramatization of things like the assassination of Julius Caesar. It was hosted by Walter Cronkite. The notion is to place the viewer back in time as if they were eyewitnesses to history. That is impossible to do completely, but getting it as close impossible is huge. Sure, if the story, acting, cinematography sucks, it will ruin it. One of my problems with a lot of today's historical movies is they take liberties with the facts or, at least present the facts from a specific, limited point of view. Usually, it is in order to make a specific point rather than make a "better" film.

Fortunately, in the case of this movie, my opinion is that any shortcomings in other areas were virtually unnoticeable, or at least do not detract from the enjoyment of the film. But that is something each of you will determine for yourselves if you decide to view it. Personally, the hair stood up during some of the battle scenes, and in others, a slight lump in the throat. BUT, that's just me.

Tennessee Jed said...

I guess another thought on the whole issue of the importance of authenticity. I certainly did not intend an inference that authenticity is THE most important thing in making any movie. But for those of us who love history, it is a critical element. In the opening paragraph of the review, even if this was a lesser film, the authenticity factor alone would make it noteworthy and worthwhile, at least for the two viewer groups mentioned.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Hmm. I didn't notice that about the poster. I guess we did get the British version? So much for my proofreading skills! :(

AndrewPrice said...

Scott and Jed, The reason for the change is how I get the images. My computer can't translate images on pdf into decent looking images to post here. So I have to go find them. Hence, the wrong poster.

AndrewPrice said...

In any event, thanks for the excellent review Jed! I've been wanting to see this very much but haven't had the chance. It looks like it would be an excellent film and I'm not at all surprised that a group of liberal critics panned it. In fact, I seem to recall a lot of anger at the very concept without really much discussion of the merits of the movie itself.

ellenB said...

Jed, Thanks for the review! I saw this earlier this year and I thought it was fantastic. I wouldn't say it was the greatest movie ever, but it was very inspiring and these guys were really impressive. It was definitely one of the better action films I've seen in a very long time.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - yeah it was just a funny thing to me. The images tend to be widely available online and I never look very closely at file size, etc. There are any number of reasons to make layout editorial changes, but when I first saw it, I was afraid I had made a huge blunder in spelling. Pretty funny, actually.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Nope, it wasn't anything you did wrong. I just typed in the name. A dozen versions of the poster came up. This was the first one to come up with all the notes on the bottom so I took it. I never thought to check the spelling.

Usually, I grab the poster from the Wikipedia because they use pre-release posters, but the one at the Wikipedia wasn't as eye-popping as this one. It was the almost all black one: LINK.

Although, interestingly, if you compare the two you will see that the black one is this one, only with the inside of an airplane added over the image. Huh?!

AndrewPrice said...

Actually, maybe that's an aircraft carrier deck rather than an airplane? I thought it might be the back of a transport plane.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Andrew! I recognized from the start that films involving the military are, unfortunately, highly politicized. As I started to read some of the negative reviews in R.T., it became clear that the excuses being given for lower ratings were ideological in nature, not objective criticism of the film itself.

Tennessee Jed said...

Ellen - your are very welcome. I believe your comments are exactly correct; e.g. nobody should be claiming it is the best film ever made, and that certainly is not my intent. Impressive, inspiring, and the best action movie in a long while? . . . . absolutely! I just found criticism from a pool of reviewers who are overtly liberal to be highly unwarranted. I have , until recently, shied away from reviewing current films, preferring the occasional older, "hidden gem" that I can pass on to people. This is one that inspired me to start making exceptions :)

ScottDS said...

Jed -

I can't disagree with anything you've said. As for the story being cliched, I think another cliche is worth noting here: "Truth is stranger than fiction." :-)

Andrew -

You should start using this site for posters. Just type a title in the search box and go crazy! (This is where I get all the posters I send to you for my stuff.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I always look for the official pre-release poster when I can find it.

I just checked out the link and this one caught my eye. LOL! Ted

T-Rav said...

For Hollywood critics, "nuanced" = "talking about how bad it is that the U.S. throws its weight around internationally then adding, 'But we support the troops.'"

Idiots. But great review, Jed!

tryanmax said...

RE: poster - at least it wasn't "Act of Velour" LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah, that would have been a very different film!

Tennessee Jed said...

How about "Act of Velcro"?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I see the tag line now: "Getting in and out of sticky situations fast!"

Tennessee Jed said...

By the way, it is the back of a big aircraft, not a carrier.

Backthrow said...

I saw the movie (via a Netflix DVD rental) a few weeks ago, and quite liked it. The SEALs obviously weren't professional actors, but didn't embarrass themselves either, and did a satisfactory job. Actually, the bearded Interrogation expert has a great scene grilling "Christo", and I could see him having a decent career as a charactor actor, ala Fred Dalton Thompson, if he chooses that career path.

I wouldn't call the film a masterpiece; the story is serviceable and spare, and none of the participants pop out as particularly memorable characters, but I don't think that was the point. I think ACT OF VALOR is more along the lines of a military-mission version of something like the original GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974); that film was filled with stunt drivers instead of seasoned actors, and its goal was to be the ultimate car chase movie, with spectacular real crashes in real locations. ACT OF VALOR exists to show you what real SEALs are capable of pulling off, using their training and equipment, albeit in a heightened and condensed manner, as well as to display their bond and code of conduct.

It was a refreshing change from the glut of CGI-fests (the Costa Rica sequence really packs a punch), and I was happy to see no phony dissent amongst the team (ie SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), no crazy 'rogue' member, and that the criminal/terrorist scheme wasn't actually perpetrated by either an evil CEO, an evil clandestine arm of the military or CIA, or some ludicrous P.C. non-threat like Iceland or Lichtenstein.

Tennessee Jed said...

Backthrow - great comments all. I loved "senior" (chief Miller) as well, particularly how he would irritate Christo by mispronouncing his name. Then when he quit being Mr. nice guy and snapped on him . . . excellent.

And yes, The Costa Rican sequence is, how you say . . . just so ;) I can truly imagine only a SEAL telling another SEAL while comforting him: "hey Mikey . . . you took one in the face . . .you are one hard mf'er, man"

Tam said...

Two hours of overt and covert all-American badassery by real American Bad Asses. What's not to love? I loved it. I couldn't talk immediately afterward, that happens when I'm proud, angry, sad and on the verge of tears.

If you haven't seen it, see it.

Tennessee Jed said...

well said, Tam :) I felt exactly the same way

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, I get the same feeling watching shows on the Discovery Channel. America and Americans are awesome. :)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review, Jed!

I have been wanting to see this one since it came out. I tend to avoid theaters due to the extreme noise and costs.

I went to see the Avengers in a theater because my oldest daughter bought me a ticket for Father's Day and I could find no way out of watching it (plus, I wanted to see it).

The last film I saw in a theater was the first Spiderman.
"So maybe they have fixed the speaker problem," I thought.

Um, no. It's even worse, if that is possible. I have 50% hearing loss in one ear and 25% in the other so you wouldn't think this would be a problem.

But after the film, which was very good, my ears hurt like crazy. Almost as bad as the time I was almost bombed to smithereens by our own aircraft (wasn't there fault or mine...long story).

Anyways, I hope to watch it soon.
At any rate, I appreciate the honest reviewing by you and a few of my fellow commenters who have seen it rather than the kneejerk (and seemingly coordinated) reviews I read when it first came out.

It's not that I have a problem with negative reviews of films I like or think I'll like, it's when the reviews don't really address the film.

"Jingoistic?" WTF does that mean? Usually, when lefties use this word it is code for too patriotic or too pro USA.
Maybe it's just me, but I really feel like slapping people that say "it's too jingoistic."

Not because they are anti-American turds but because they don't have the cajones to be honest.
Okay, I lied, I would still like to smack 'em but I won't.

I do agree that those on the right tend to give films like this glowing reviews, but the ones I read did say the acting wasn't great, and that it could've been more polished, but seemed to be liked by all conservatives who had seen it.

Looking forward to seeing it soon. Thanks Jed! :^)

Tennessee Jed said...

Ben - you are very welcome, and thanks for your extremely kind comments vis-à-vis "honest reviewing.". I really agree with you about "jingoism." For the absolute best response to that type of criticism, see Tam's comment--it's a Commentarama classic :)

LawHawkRFD said...

Tennessee: I'm sure the Brits are occasionally valourous too. LOL

I'll be looking for this movie, thanks to your review. I might have missed it otherwise.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Hawk. I'll be interested in your take on it.

rlaWTX said...

Hawk, I think the Brits are usually velourous, though...

Jed, I LOVED this movie when I saw it. Partially, because I had been hearing all the bad press about it - so when it was actually pretty good, I was quite happy. I suggest having tissues handy when you watch it. Even my former USMC brother (who criticizes EVERYTHING) had nothing to gripe about!
The story speeds along. You get to see the men as people and as warriors. You see the bad guys get whomped by the good guys. What's not to love!?!

Cheryl said...

USS Ben:

I also shy away from the theater because it's just too loud!

Try wearing earplugs.

It's so stinkin' loud you can still completely hear it, but your ears won't hurt at the end.

AndrewPrice said...

Cheryl, I used to do that at rock concerts otherwise my ears would ring for three days.

JG said...

I'd just like to throw in - if someone chose to BUY this movie rather than RENT it, portions of every DVD sale go to Operation Homefront, a reputable organization that provides financial aid to military families in hardship situations. And Act of Valor is well worth the purchase price, in my opinion. :) Shameless plug over.

Tennessee Jed said...

RlaWTX - you are absolutely right: what's not to love? :)

Tennessee Jed said...

I never go to a commercial theater anymore, Cheryl. I do love the soundtracks on blu-ray discs, though. The use of lossless digital technology and 7 discrete channels is an even bigger step forward than 1080p from 720 p.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, Thanks for telling us! It's not a shameless plug, it's something people might very much like to know. :)

Tennessee Jed said...

JG - an absolute great point. I know our crowd generally is a netflix crowd. Since I love military films and tend to buy the discs, this one was a no brainer, but that is a great bonus.

LawHawkRFD said...

rlaWTX: The American Interior Decorators Society is going to do its own movie--Men of Velour. They wanted to to use velvet, but the budget wouldn't allow it. The original title was The Velvet Undergarment.

Individualist said...

Jed

Great Review!

Why did the reviewers hate it.... oh Jed we don't have to ponder that too much do we....

I mean we had Navy Seals and American In telligence agencies working hand in hand, supporting each other and in a competent way to boot.

Most Hollywood films that show a heroic battlefield warrior have to have him at odds as much with Langley as they do the enemy.

Is there any doubt the IN crowd in the NY Times jet set would hate this film.

This was a great film and you are right people should see this....

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Indi! You are quite right about the reviewers. Their conclusions seemed clearly were driven by ideology. I am awed by our special forces. This film displays the incredible competence they bring to the table for the toughest jobs. It takes an incredibly rare breed of individual to do what they do, and no film has ever depicted it as well as this one.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks to all who commented on this one

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