Act of Valor – the latest grand experiment in what you might call “experiential casting” (read: mostly without trained actors) – was on the movie-going docket this weekend, and I must say: it was not an entire waste of my $11 (ringing endorsement, I know). If you’re anything like me (meaning the only thing you like better than an action movie is a combat movie), you saw the trailer for Valor and thought “HELL YEAH!!!” For combat movie junkies, what could possibly be better than a film starring real-life, ass-kicking demolishing Navy SEALs?! I was so giddy about this movie’s potential that I almost forgot the SEALs would have to act – almost.
Valor is told primarily from the points of view of two SEAL teammates and friends: Lieutenant Rorke and Chief Dave (full names of the SEAL crewmen appearing in the film are not given). Through Chief Dave’s narration, you’re introduced to the SEAL team, the lives of its members, and the stakes involved with their missions. The film’s narrative centers around Lt. Rorke: before the SEALs ship out for their first assignment, we see Rorke’s painful parting from his expectant wife (they appear to live in Middle America, to no surprise). Before you can blink, the SEALs parachute into the outer perimeter of a hostile encampment, intent on retrieving a particular asset.
Here’s where the strength of Valor becomes apparent: what the film lacks in dramatic depth, it more than makes up for in technical proficiency. Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh – co-directors and the driving forces behind getting the film made – decided on casting active-duty SEALs in the lead roles when it became apparent that no actors could credibly carry the physicality involved in production. And what a decision this turned out to be: witnessing the SEALs’ stealth approach to the encampment, and the supreme coordination it required (amidst great tension), was truly remarkable. Their extraction of the aforementioned asset, which culminates in a perfect storm of contingency planning, is equally breathtaking.
Alas, the movie is not all Call of Duty: Rorke’s and Chief Dave’s conversations invariably allude to home, which of course harkens back to Rorke’s pregnant wife. This becomes important as the SEALs’ constantly-evolving objectives come into greater focus following their first mission. Information retrieved during that engagement reveals an international conspiracy, masterminded by some rather dubious villains, and the plot becomes a full-court press to neutralize the threat before American lives are lost (à la 24). This development takes the SEALs to the far-flung locales of Mexico and Somalia, but for Rorke it’s a race against the clock as he calmly deliberates his twin duties to country and family.
Navy SEALs have been the object of increased (and, for them, perhaps unprecedented) attention since the successful May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Certain purported inner workings of its super-elite Team Six came to light immediately following the raid, and with Valor, the US Navy brilliantly capitalized on the heightened public interest. The film is admittedly an initiative to recruit SEALs, and a novel of the same title accompanied its release.
Of course all of that would be for naught if Valor could not deliver a satisfying conclusion, and to its credit, it tries to in earnest. The highlight of the international conspiracy involves utilizing foreign nationals to infiltrate the US for game-changing purposes, and our protagonist Rorke and Co. engage the threat south-of-the-border. Heavily-armed and sufficiently desperate, the enemy proves to be more formidable than anticipated, which causes the SEALs to make some tough but necessary decisions. Again, this was by far my favorite aspect of the movie: both before and during the combat sequences, you see the SEALs’ exquisite decision-making processes in action, especially their unparalleled integration of new and often unfamiliar pieces on the chessboard of war, and most importantly the outcome of such moves.
To McCoy’s and Waugh’s credit, they show the audience a painfully authentic side of military combat in closing. Valor’s final scene takes place in a cemetery as the SEALs, triumphant but battle weary, assemble to honor one of their vanquished. Over Chief Dave’s parting words the circle of life is illuminated: from the dust we are born and to the dust we must return, however the events of our life in between are what define our character – and the lessons we leave to those who follow are what define our legacy. To that end, the names of those SEALs killed in action since 9/11 that are proudly displayed at the end of the film shall indeed echo in eternity.