Thursday, March 8, 2012

Act of Valor - a punch to the gut

I'm not much of a movie-goer. I dislike (intensely) the way Hollywood so often screws up their plots, expects us to not merely suspend disbelief but actively participate in mentally screwball whacko impossibilities, and sneers at ethics, morals and values that are important, even dear to me. I haven't set foot inside a movie theater in well over two decades, relying on occasional DVD's or broadcast films for entertainment.

That changed today. Miss D. wanted very much to see 'Act of Valor', the movie made with and by and about the US Navy SEALs. For those who haven't yet heard of it, Wikipedia has a lengthy description of it (which gives away the plot, so be warned!). Here's the trailer for the movie, followed by a five-minute 'making-of' featurette.

CAUTION: What I'm going to say next will contain several 'spoilers' - references to events in the movie. If you haven't seen it, and plan to, and don't want to know more about it before you do, then you shouldn't read further until you've done so.

# # # # #

OK, here we go.

I suppose I should note a couple of important points before continuing. They colored and conditioned my reactions to this movie, so they've influenced everything I have to say about it tonight.

  1. I've never been a member of any Special Forces unit, and never will be. However, between 1976 and 1988 I occasionally had the privilege of working with a few members of two such units: the former Rhodesian Special Air Service, and the South African Reconnaissance Regiments. I received training from some of their members, and supported some of their operations (about which I'll not go into detail, for obvious reasons). I therefore think I can claim to understand something of the 'Special Forces mindset' (possessed by the US Navy SEALs in abundance, of course).
  2. I'm a combat veteran, having experience of being 'up at the sharp end' both as a military serviceman, and as a civilian during the 'dark years' from 1976-1994, when South Africa was engulfed in a rolling, roiling campaign of terrorism and civil unrest that culminated in that country's first fully democratic elections in 1994. I've previously written about some of my experiences during that period. I have more than a few scars to bear witness to those years, and still carry shrapnel in my body. I know realistic combat scenes when I see them, and judge all war movies accordingly.

From that background, I have to say that this is the best movie about contemporary warfare that I've ever seen. Sure, there are some weak points in the plot, but the plot exists only to serve as a vehicle for the display of real-world military skills, so that's forgivable in my eyes. There are also a few Hollywood touches, such as:
  • Masses of flame during some explosions (normally there's a bang, a brief flash, and a whole lot of smoke and flying dirt and debris, but not much in the way of a fireball unless something like a fuel tank is hit);
  • Incorrect assault formations (you don't bunch up, for fear of too many of you being taken out by a single burst of fire . . . but you can't spread out as you would 'for real' when the camera needs to frame all of you in a particular shot);
  • Visible aiming lasers (you don't use visible lasers in military combat ops, because they show your own position far too clearly to armed opponents - you use infra-red lasers that you can see through night vision equipment, but which are invisible to the naked eye: and even those you use as sparingly as possible, because the enemy may have night vision equipment too!);
  • Certain deliberately incorrect tactics (because no SF 'operator' wants to reveal actual, critical tactics in a movie that's certain to be watched by his enemies).

However, those few 'flaws' are there for understandable reasons, and don't detract from the otherwise superb display of military co-ordination and combat operations. I've personally participated in at least a dozen operations (both exercises and the real thing) similar to the assault on a village on an island, shown towards the end of the movie. The real thing is very similar to what's portrayed there. Furthermore, the portrayals of gunhandling are very close to modern combat doctrine, and what I've seen 'operators' do. Rapid, single, aimed shots, rather than full-auto fire (which is much harder to control and wasteful of ammunition); repeated hits on a target, not relying on just one or two rounds to do the job, but continuing to fire until the threat is definitely neutralized; shooting for critical areas like the central nervous system (i.e. head shots) whenever possible, at very close range by almost everybody and at longer ranges by snipers (although center-of-mass point-of-aim remains the conventional approach); all those things are as real as they come.

Quite frankly, those critics who've 'dissed' this film merely betray their own lack of military and combat experience. Wikipedia reports:

Many reviews, both positive and negative, have expressed praise for the action sequences while criticizing the plot and acting. Claudia Puig from USA Today, for example, said the action in the film is "breathtaking," but gave the film an overall negative review, in which she wrote that "the soldiers' awkward line readings are glaring enough to distract from the potency of the story." Similarly, Amy Biancolli from the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "[Act of Valor is] intended to wow audiences with high-test action while planting a giant wet kiss on the smacker of the U.S. military - and it scores at both tasks," but that, ultimately, "the film gets snagged by its own narrative convention." Michael Rechtshaffen from The Hollywood Reporter had a similar opinion, stating, "Although the film has its undeniably immersive, convincing moments, the merging of dramatic re-creations and on-camera 'performances' proves less seamlessly executed than those masterfully coordinated land, sea and air missions." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two and a half out of four stars, and complained that "we don't get to know the characters as individuals, they don't have personality traits, they have no back stories, they don't speak in colorful dialogue, and after the movie you'd find yourself describing events but not people."

Those reviewers just don't get it. This film doesn't portray actors pretending to be soldiers, but actual military men pretending to be actors! They shouldn't be expected to excel as actors. That's not their job. They merely portray on screen what they do in real life, and they do that magnificently well. If they display shortcomings while 'playing at being actors', that's not in the least surprising to me.

Now comes the part that's hardest for me to describe. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the death in combat of a close friend. I was there. I watched Flynn die, helpless to save him. You can read about it here. I'd like to quote one paragraph from that earlier article.

I had to let go of his hand, and grab my rifle, and return fire . . . and as I did so, I remember hearing the last half-gasping, half-choking rattle in his throat . . . and by the time I could look around again, it was too late. Just a couple of flecks of African dust, lifted by the last breath through his lips, drifting lazily before his mouth, then slowly sinking down to the ground once more, into the muddy blood that spread slowly from beneath him . . . and his one good eye, staring blankly into the dust, and the blood, and the darkness that had taken him from me.

Towards the end of 'Act of Valor', one of the SEAL characters is killed in action. The portrayal of his death brought tears to my eyes . . . because whoever scripted that scene showed the blood pouring out from beneath his body, forming a pool, and motes of dust dancing in a beam of sunlight in front of his open, lifeless eyes.

It reminded me so powerfully of Flynn's death that for a moment, I was dumbstruck. I couldn't believe - I still can't believe - that something so lethally intimate could be scripted by someone who's never 'been there and done that'. I don't see how an uninformed imagination could have conceived of it. I'm convinced that someone in the SEALs described having seen something similar, and his experience was then incorporated into the movie. I'm sure you understand that I suddenly felt an intense kinship with whoever he was and is. I'll likely never know his name, and probably never meet him, but somehow that scene established a bond between him - between all those SEALs on the screen - and myself. As I said before, I've never been, am not, and never will be a Special Forces soldier; but as one combat veteran to another . . . thanks, guys. I needed to see that. It released something that had been locked up inside me for far too long. I still can't say for sure what that is: but I guess I'll find out in due course.

When the movie was over, Miss D. and I walked slowly back to our vehicle through the rain. I tried to say to her how important it was for me to have seen the film with her, because I felt it would help her understand certain things about me, and in my past, that I'd never been able to articulate to my satisfaction. She surprised me very much by pointing out that she'd always understood some of those things. She says I'd never made allowance for the US 'military brat' subculture which is her background. She's right, of course - it's a distinctively US subculture that isn't found outside this country, as far as I'm aware - at least, not in that specific form. Seeing 'Act of Valor' together has opened a new vista on our relationship, and a very positive one as far as I'm concerned. I'm grateful she badgered me into going to see it with her. (You can read her perspective on it, and her reactions, at her blog.)

All in all, I can't praise 'Act of Valor' too highly. Forget the negative reviews about poor acting. Sure, when SEALs try to portray actors, they don't do it very well. So what? They aren't actors, and never will be! They're among the finest Special Forces troops on the face of the earth . . . and they portray that reality brilliantly on screen.

Go see it.


EDITED TO ADD: If you need another perspective, here's a good one.


Josh Kruschke said...

Some FYI:

Take care,

Rev. Paul said...

I'm reluctant to see the film because of the memories & associations it will inevitably open up again; I've stuffed those down for far too long and am afraid of what I might find if I look there again.

After reading of your reaction to the movie, however ... now I'm not so sure.

Thank you for your honest response to it; that alone is helpful.

Anonymous said...

The acting was was widely criticised as 'wooden' - but it was still better than one award-winning Holly Wooden - Kevin Costner.
I'm not a soldier, nor particularly close to any, but I found the film (hmm - archaic term now, since it's all digital?) very worth watching. Gut-wrenching, painful scenes were predictable but powerfully delivered the message of just how much we, the people, owe to such men and their families. Action scenes were intense & exciting (though strung together in typical unrealistic Hollywood style, but so what.) The portrayal of enemies and their actions was probably too close to truth. Great 'advertisement' for the men and machines of the armed forces.
My summary - see it; its flaws are minor in the greater scheme of things.

Tango Juliet said...

The mini-guns alone are worth the price of admission.

JD(not the one with the picture) said...

+1 Tango Juliet. Those SEALs are much better actors than Matt Damon, Brad Pitt or George Clooney are warriors.

Captain Tightpants said...

As I mentioned in my own post on this - I agree & am happy my wife was there with me. Both for the chance it gave for her to see some of what I remember, and to be able to discuss my own feelings and experiences after.

Anonymous said...

Rev Paul,

If you go back to the places and times in your mind that you hate the most and process it, remember the smell, the sounds, what you saw and everything you can about it the bad dreams stop. At least thats how it worked for me and I know other guys who it has worked for as well. A public movie theater is probably not the best place to do it but you don't need the movie to do it anyway. The mind is a peculiar thing. It seems what we won't let it process in the light comes to visit in the night.

trailbee said...

Hope I can keep this promise to myself. I really did stop reading.
I, too, have not been to the movies for longer than two decades. Our son has gifted us with three DVDs which I have watched, but other than that, I don't watch them.