I watched Act Of Valor because there was something about its mix of provocatively familiar title and government-sanctioned authenticity that from the outside made me feel queasy. “The characters in this film are portrayed by active duty US Navy Seals”, the trailer blares, while the film itself looks and sounds like a videogame (albeit an App Store chancer hoping to alphebetise its way ahead of Call Of Duty and Medal Of Honor into our hearts and download queues).
This seems like a morally uncomfortable mix: “Kids, this is real”, and “Kids, this is like a game.” Because kids is exactly who the film is aimed at – in its final release form, at least – and the lingering underlying message is unavoidably: “Kids, have you ever thought about a career in the military?”
But before I ready supplies for a prolonged assault on Hollywood hijacking the aesthetics of videogames in the service of propaganda – because there’s more than that going on here, including some astonishingly awful acting – it’s worth looking at Act Of Valor in a little more detail. It’s actually a relatively low-budget film (around $15 million) made in conjunction with the US military by small-time production company The Banditos Brothers. Originally planned as a recruitment project, the production grew and eventually became a feature-length film showing SEALs in action, written, on the Navy’s recommendation, by 300’s Kurt Johnstad.
This is nothing new – Hollywood has a long-standing relationship with the military: “We’ll lend you our billion-dollar toys, and you make them look cool for PG-13 audiences coming up to recruitment age.” What’s remarkable in Act Of Valor’s case is that the cooperation goes much deeper than usual. The Navy gave their filmmakers everything except a production budget: free access to military hardware, to special forces training missions (during which the film’s suitably corporate-video-with-laser-sights action sequences were filmed) and to Navy Seals themselves, who in the end became the film’s key cast. These Seals, who form the pillar of the marketing campaign, were on active duty – that is to say, this recruitment drive counted as active duty.
The resulting film is not particularly offensive – not as cloyingly patriotic or overtly in hock to the language of videogames as that queasy trailer suggested. You sense that the filmmakers, and especially the SEALs onscreen, are desperately keen to show their work not necessarily in a positive light, but as an uncomplicatedly professional business of which they are proud. In combination with the amateur acting – kept to a sensible minimum, but still the scene of fixed-eyed goodbyes (“I love you baby”) is like watching a glazed ham leave for college – the film generates a heartbreaking homework earnestness, a smiling sense of achievement as simple and unbeguiling as a wagging dog impatient to show you the shit it just did in the kitchen. You know, in case that’s what you wanted.
Action is the film’s obvious strong suit. But it also bring the first uncomfortable crossover with games, with a series of shots and images familiar from any number of contemporary conflict firstperson shooters – the stat-sheet overlay, the aerial threat marker, the ubiquitous down-the-barrel view. It’s possible that this is cross-pollination – real becomes game becomes film that wants to be real so much it forgot why actors are so useful – but it seems impossible that the parallel wasn’t at least discussed during production.
The film is also structured like the games its name self-consciously apes, with a globe-spanning terror plot, and an eye for a set-piece over and above logical plotting. There’s a practical reason for the film to be structured this way, as the production made opportunistic use of locations and equipment as they became available during the four-year shoot. But the similarity remains, and by the end the film becomes so episodic that its perfunctory rehearsal of words and meaning punctuate the action like ungenerous slices of bread in a thick conflict sandwich. Or, even more depressingly, like introductory cutscenes that games typically offer us a margarine narrative pre-dropoff, an ersatz replacement for sustained, significant human presence and the minimum required before the guns can start going off again.
And this is where things get unsettling. What the film shares with Medal Of Honor and Call Of Duty in particular is a lean, efficient take on the military. No outwardly propogandist statements are uttered, but they’re there anyway in the the seductive ruthlessness of the hardware, the powerful mastery of war, the reverence for flags, badges and other totems of national strength.
This is the real power of the ‘actual SEALs’ headline – in the same way that Call Of Duty has gifted a generation of teenagers the ability to recognise every automatic weapon on the market by silhouette alone, and Medal Of Honor rolled out ‘Tier One’ combat veterans (OK, a dude with a beard who lives in a hole in Islamabad) during its promotional campaign (or, “its efforts to sell war to children for profit”), these cold stabs at realism speak of a dangerous direct channel from entertainment to experience.
These more unsettling aspects of Act Of Valor might have remained hidden behind the 'look, Ma' showreel had the finished film not been marketed the way it has been. Having wrapped production, Act Of Valor was bought by distributor Relativity Media for $13 million in June 2011, just weeks after the unsanctioned killing of Osama Bin Laden brought Navy SEAL sexy back.
Relativity was then responsible for the film’s promotion, and zeroed in on the crossover with games suggested by the film’s title and aesthetic. There was a tie-in campaign launched on the website of Battlefield 3 (watch the trailer on the Battlefield page, get an in-game dog tag reward), and a promotional deal with Call Of Duty-inspired YouTube star FPS Russia. It’s here that the awkward fusion of government-sponsored initiative and private drive for profit create a sinister, unacceptable hybrid.
As this thoughtful piece by Ed Stern makes clear, the representation of war in any medium of entertainment is a difficult thing. And of course, war itself is a difficult thing – as much as they make for unwatchable actors, the stars of Act Of Valor do a hard job, and one they believe in. While I feel all sorts of reservations about the reasons they fight and the effect it has, I’m in no position to criticise them. What I will criticise is how Act Of Valor slid from slick-but-unsubtle promo reel to game-savvy propaganda, which found Xbox Live kids where they live and sold them a bullshit shortcut from online killstreaks to taking down jihadists.
This is an edited version of a post on Nathan Ditum's film blog, and has been reproduced with his permission.