Act of Valor cleared $24.7 million this weekend. Along the way to the movie's release, it's become an accepted bit of truth that the film is meant to boost Navy recruitment. But while that may once have been the filmmakers' intention (and the Navy's), the final product works as a piece of propaganda in an entirely different way. Another piece of the film's promotion has been to portray Act of Valor as running against the grain of Hollywood: the first pro-military film of its kind since Vietnam. That is even less true.
Act of Valor is actually a sequel of sorts. Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh made a video in collaboration with the military in 2007 that was a kind of infomercial about the Navy's Special Warfare Combatant-craft, or SWCC ("swick"). It's no surprise then that SWCC "quiet professionals" feature heavily in the plot of Act of Valor. This previous work likely opened the door for the two when the Navy devised a plan to use Hollywood to drive recruitment. An article about Act of Valor, published by The San Francisco Chronicle last year, noted that "the Navy will keep raw footage to use for training and other purposes."
The final result is an incoherent action film that fails miserably as a recruitment tool. The plot is laughably simplistic (as even those sitting most squarely within its target demo have noted) and the action is bloodless, as one would expect from a training video. In fact, the whole project, right down to its frequent use of the first-person-shooter perspective—captured with Zeiss ZF cameras mounted on the SEALs' helmets—feels entirely like a video game. Indeed, Act of Valor had tie-in deals with Battlefield 3, and despite all the throwing around of the word "authenticity," the movie's main villain, a Russian terrorism-enabling gangster bad guy named Christo, is played by actor Alex Veadov whose previous acting credits include the video games Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, Shadow Ops: Red Mercury, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2, Call of Duty: Finest Hour, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising, Shadow Ops: Red Mercury, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, and, yes, SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs. In one scene, "Senior," a SEAL interrogator, screams at Christo, "What do you think this is, a game?" Well…
But where Act of Valor excels as propaganda is as a justification for an increasing global special-ops hawkishness. It's a made-to-order reinforcement for a security-obsessed populace that sees danger at every corner, every border, and inside the jacket of every bystander. It was no accident that the film had a special screening at SHOT Show, the annual monster trade show for the firearms industry. The pro-firearm website The Truth About Guns called out Valor's storyline as terrible and clichéd, but waxed orgasmic about the gunfire scenes, concluding its review: "Two words: live ammunition. Love it." The film got a glowing eight-page feature in the NRA's Warrior magazine. And why wouldn't it? A plot in which the Russian mafia helps Muslim terrorists smuggle assembly-line-manufactured ceramic explosive vests capable of eluding metal detectors through tunnels used by Mexican drug cartels is sure to appeal to the same paranoid crowd targeted by all those LifeLock commercials played at nearly every Rush Limbaugh commercial break.
By the way, no kidding, LifeLock sponsored Act of Valor's premiere.
The closing credits for the film include the 60 SEALs who have been killed since September 11, 2011. Why since 9/11? Because, 9/11, that's why.
On their publicity rounds for the film, McCoy and Waugh have gone from interview to interview in the company of their straw man that Hollywood is a giant enemy of the military and that it took the two of them, working with the Navy, to finally make an armed forces-positive flick. At times it even seems that by sheer dint of having learned that SEALs use the term "downrange" to describe being active in the field, McCoy and Waugh feel they qualify as honorary SEALs. The two have blasted Hollywood's unrealistic portrayal of soldiers as "Rambo-Terminator with his head screwed on sideways." Which is of course why they hired Kurt Johnstad, screenwriter of 1997's True Vengeance, about a Navy SEAL forced to assassinate somebody after his daughter is kidnapped by the Yakuza, to script their film.
In a Washington Times interview McCoy boasted, “The Vietnam legacy has been this fog that wouldn’t lift for 40 years. And no one had the balls in Hollywood to go the other way, to say, ‘Let’s really look at the world and the men and women serving right now.’ That’s 40 years ago. Why are we still using the same ideology, this anti-military ideology?”
Given his busy schedule as part of the Pentagon's propaganda network, McCoy can be excused from not having made it to a movie theater in the last decade or so. If he had maybe he'd have noticed that Hollywood and the military are currently enjoying a level of cooperation not seen since World War II.
In an interview, Matthew Alford, author of Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, told me that his research shows that between 1991 and 2002 "approximately a third of major films that depict the US military have direct cooperation and script rewrites by the Pentagon."
Alford added, "The national security services in Hollywood, specifically the CIA and Armed Forces, have long exerted a powerful influence over screenplays we all know." Every time a film features an aircraft carrier, some tanks, or any other piece of major military hardware, you can bet the Department of Defense provided it, and received script "consideration" in return. From Transformers to this summer's Hasbro-based Battleship, this is how Hollywood does military films now. Even the weepy love story about an Afghanistan vet and his gal back home, Dear John, worked with the DOD in order to be able to film at Charleston Air Force Base with use of aircraft and "active duty" airmen as extras.
A great recent example of the extensively of Hollywood's cozy relationship with the military is Battle: Los Angeles.
If you missed it last year, the movie's about a Camp Pendleton 2nd Battalion 5th Marines unit that has to battles its way out of a Los Angeles under invasion from aliens. Hardly a realistic scenario, right? But filmmakers received extraordinary cooperation from the Marines Corps, including guidance, resources, training and access to Camp Pendleton. In return, Marines Lt. Col. Jason Johnson helped guide the project and "protect" the image of the Corps. But while Johnson frequently acts as a liaison for such film productions, even offering "script notes," you won't find his name in the credits of any film. And while Act of Valor may have "starred" active-duty SEALS, Battle: Los Angeles starred about 50 active-duty Marines. At the film's premier, at Camp Pendleton, star Aaron Eckhart said, "This is a movie about Marines… kicking ass. When people see this movie, we want to make sure that they love the Marines."
No matter director McCoy's protestations, it's a not-very-well-kept secret of Hollywood that there is hardly anything such as an anti-military Hollywood movie. In his 2003 book about being a Marine sniper in the 1991 Gulf War, Jarhead, Anthony Swofford writes:
But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First Fuck. It doesn't matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar—the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not.
Paradoxically, what has become maybe the best piece of Hollywood pro-military recruitment propaganda is not an Act of Valor-like syrupy fictional tale starring live ammunition and guys who hold the guns in ways actors could never be taught. It is Black Hawk Down, the story of the disastrous 1993 mission in Mogadishu in which US helicopters were shot down and numerous soldiers were wounded and killed. The military itself fully understands how powerful its product placements are. Conventional wisdom would dictate that Black Hawk Down would hardly be a film project that the Pentagon would support, but support it they did. And it has paid off handsomely. In Generation Kill, his book about a Marine battalion in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, journalist Evan Wright notes that the unit in which he was embedded watched Black Hawk Down at Kuwaiti Camp Mathilda on the eve of joining combat operations in Iraq.
Black Hawk Down is such a bit of pro-Pentagon celluloid that it is now the prototype for top-line films in which the DOD has access. Watch Battle:Los Angeles and it is impossible not to see that the final scene—during which the Marines, despite being exhausted and battle weary, begin reloading to get back out there—is not a direct lift of the final scene of Black Hawk Down in which Eric Bana's Delta Force soldier Hoot packs supplies to, unbelievably, get back out there into the fight. Act of Valor contains its own (maybe unintentional) echo of Black Hawk Down when a member of SEALs team operating in Africa refers to targets as "skinnies."
Act of Valor was already filming when SEAL Team Six took out Osama bin Laden, and the film has surely benefited from the SEALs' rightful stardom. Black Hawk Down was likely helped to box-office success due to a similar coincidence of timing. Already in the can when bin Laden and company took down the Twin Towers, Black Hawk opened in theaters just a few months later.
Michael Golembesky joined the Marine Corps shortly after 9/11 and was stationed in Afghanistan. In Level Zero Heroes, he chronicles a 2009-2010 operation to retrieve two soldiers' bodies after an air drop gone "terribly wrong." He recently told me, "Hands down I would have to say that Black Hawk Down is the only military movie that has come close in presenting the chaos and complexity of emotions that is associated with modern-day combat." As he pointed out, "because Black Hawk Down was based on actual events and true perspective from the men fighting on the ground, it speaks to people in a way that words can’t."
Golembesky believes the story he tells in Level Zero Heroes is the "Black Hawk Down of Afghanistan," that is, a story "just as complex and violent." The book recounts how two 82nd Airborne Paratroopers were drowned while trying to retrieve supplies in the Bala Morghab River after an air drop, and the involvement of Special Operations Team 8222 in "one of the most massive and lengthy Personnel Recovery missions in the history of the Afghanistan War." The mission, which came to be called Operation Hero Recovery, included an attempt to break the Taliban’s stranglehold on the valley, during which one of the unit's mentors was killed in a firefight.
With all due respect to Act of Valor's "authentic" and "live round" firefight sequences, Golembesky's Level Zero Heroes project contains hours and hours of footage, much of it filmed by helmet cams during actual firefights.
Golembesky is still searching for a publisher for his book, which, he allows, is still in rough manuscript form. "I am taking it slow and looking for the right outlet for telling these brave heroes' story," he said. Interested parties are all welcome to email him.
Asked if he plans to see Act of Valor, Golembesky told me he has "no plans to go see it." Then he added, "I have not really heard any buzz about it. Is it based on true events?"