Act of Valor
dir. Kurt Johnstad
Release Date: Feb 24, 12
Act of Valor is a show of unabashed patriotism that wouldn’t feel out of place in the cinema of an older wartime era, but with a nasty fetishistic streak that occasionally emerges and undercuts what is by rights a relentlessly sincere film. Initially conceived as a short and expanded into a full-length recruiting video for the United States Navy (the Navy required that the unnamed SEALs in the film participate), Valor reenacts several real-life SEAL operations and frames them around a story of an extremist who plans to sneak ceramic explosives into the U.S. and stage a massive, economically crippling terrorist coup. Director Kurt Johnstad gives the soldiers just enough backstory to add a certain level of poignance to the proceedings, while focusing primarily on the tactical action and constant danger involved in special operations military work.
Given that the purpose of Valor is to encourage enlistment in the military, evaluating it as an action film seems almost unfair. To that end, however, it’s not a particularly good movie. I’ll stay away from discussing performances, which seems wholly beside the point; for the bit of dialogue they’re given, all involved do quite well. The action, however, continues a worrisome trend in many modern-day war films, especially recently, which is the absolute glorification of warfare as essentially a game. Johnstad’s use of first-person throughout doesn’t exactly do much to alleviate this issue. For a movie that wants to depict the realities of being a soldier, glory and agony alike (late in the film, bodies start piling up on both sides), things get a bit too candy-colored a bit too frequently. It’s rare to see a film that treats military life with this level of reverence, but Valor tries too hard to appeal to young men who view active duty as an awesome chance to hold a huge gun for a living.
The plot, too, is hackneyed beyond belief, a too-basic story of terrorists that again treats warfare with the depth of a first-person shooter. Again, though, for a recruiting tool Valor does exactly what it must. To that end, the action is an easy highlight. The film is surprisingly gorgeous to look at, with no shortage of glorious vistas and tightly cramped slums throughout. Because much of the action is taken from actual events, there’s a careful patience and tension to the siege sequences that most action movies now lack. In particular, early in the film the SEAL platoon has a rescue extraction go terribly awry, and their improvised escape is genuinely thrilling. Johnstad shoots these moments within the claustrophobic confines of helmets and tight packs of soldiers, to interesting effect.
If the big emotional moments don’t click quite as well, they’re ultimately inevitable, a necessary addition in order to show the darker side of enlistment, namely the ultimate sacrifice demanded of service. Act of Valor glosses over quite a bit in its efforts to glorify what it’s selling, but considering it based on that purpose, it does what it needs to with a bit more elegance than it really needs. That it’s not a particularly good movie seems almost secondary.
A final note: I’ve avoided the topic of Act of Valor’s stances on service deliberately. There’s much more to be said from an ideological standpoint, but that willingly sets aside what the film is.