Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reviewing Act of Valor

On Friday I went to the movie theater for the first time in several months to take in Act of Valor, a movie about and starring active duty Navy SEALs. I wasn't really planning on reviewing it formally like this, but I find the reactions I have seen to the movie quite interesting and wanted to weigh in from a different perspective. This review may or may not contain spoilers so consider that the requisite warning.

See, on the Left, people hate the movie for not having whining crybaby SEALs who aren't sure of their orders because they're coming from corrupt commanders who are using the SEALs to do all manner of horrible things in the name of making money and increasing their personal power. They want their morally ambiguous, maybe-the-bad-guy-isn't-really-bad-and-we're-not-really-good, convoluted plot with conflicted characters and all of that nonsense. They're also incredibly offended by the "jingoism" and overly pro-military nature of this kind of movie, referring to it as basically a two hour advertisement for the SEALs.

On the Right, people call the movie tremendous and powerful, a great film you should all run out to see because it's about Navy SEALs who do their jobs well, who protect Americans from threats about which they will never know, and who will lay down their lives for their brothers in arms and all of us back at home without hesitation or doubt. You should see the movie to support the troops and more importantly, send Hollywood a message that we like these kinds of films.

Well, they're both wrong. Act of Valor is not a good movie, not because of its tone or how it portrays the SEALs, but because the basic mechanics of filmmaking such as directing and editing are not good at all.

Now let me preface the rest of my review by noting that I love action movies. My all time favorite movie is Armageddon, which is a much loathed film by Michael Bay wherein Bruce Willis saves the world from an asteroid. That movie changes shots on average every 1.5 seconds. So clearly I am no stranger to things like hyper fast editing and shakey cam. It does not bother me physically, and even though I have become jaded to the use of shakey cam, I am usually ok with it.

This movie, however, gave me a headache inside of five minutes, so if you get motion sickness or any adverse affects from the above kind of camera work, I suggest you not see this in a theater. I attribute my headache primarily to the camera tending to change focus often and randomly, sometimes being just enough out of focus to be noticeable, which is likely due to the director's preference for handheld and helmet cameras combined with extreme closeups and tight shots. Often a character's chin would be cut off while leaving several inches of space above his head, and similar odd camera work, even for the steady-cams. By the middle of the movie, I just wanted the camera to zoom out a few inches so the thing on the screen was at least in frame.

Beyond that, the editing and the pacing is incredibly abrupt and awkward. For example, at the beginning of the movie a subtitle tells us the scene is a HALO training jump in California. The SEALs all dive out of the plane and fall through the air in formation for a minute or so, and then before they so much as pull their chutes, the movie abruptly and inexplicably cuts to a terrorist driving an ice cream truck on the other side of the world. The jump has no ties to the rest of the movie, nor does it indicate whether or not the characters in the movie were participating in it. There's even a much better nighttime HALO jump later on that they do follow through with, so this standard "guys jump out of airplane" scene that we have seen a hundred times before is even less necessary.

This happens quite frequently throughout the movie, with the perspective suddenly switching from one set of characters to another or from one place to another with little rhyme or reason. This makes a fairly straightforward plot seem jumbled and messy, which is then exacerbated by the fact that the SEALs talk like well, SEALs, and they use lots of terms that are abbreviations and otherwise meaningless to a lay person. So it can take a minute to reason out what they meant, but the movie will cut somewhere else rather than give the audience the time to do so.

As for that plot, it is quite simple and direct. One of the SEALs is having a baby, but they're called on mission to find a CIA agent who was captured by a smuggler and is being tortured for information. During their rescue of the agent, the SEALs discover the smuggler is working with the aforementioned terrorist to get suicide bombers into the US, and they need to be stopped.

One might think with such a nice easy Point A to Point B plot, we'd have time to get to know the characters involved, but unfortunately not so much. Of the SEALs who are actually participating outside the action scenes, only two of them really have any screen time to speak of, and most of our time spent with them is rehashing their very first scene where one ribs the other about having a baby.

The rest of the group gets a very brief narration at the beginning of the film as to who they are, but otherwise have almost no dialog to speak of with the exception of the interrogator who gets some time near the end in arguably the best scene in the film.

Despite the emphasis on the SEALs being the stars, the supporting cast does feature quite a few recognizable faces from TV and other bit parts. Their characters are almost entirely glossed over though, including the CIA agent that ends up tortured. We spend a few minutes with her learning she is good at Scrabble and likes children, but that's it. Once she's rescued, she disappears from the film entirely.

The only characters the film does seem to develop are the main villains, creating a couple of guys who are not merely caricatures of evil as liberal critics would have you believe. The smuggler clearly loves his family and is not totally on board with the terrorist. The terrorist similarly feels the weight of sacrificing his lieutenants.

Naturally, the 300 lb. gorilla in the room is the acting. Suffice it to say, you can tell who does what for a living. Although I will add the SEALs do much better when they're one on one with one of the pros or when doing the action stuff.

The action, by the way, is standard action movie fare. Nothing terribly special, and the camera doesn't really hold still long enough to get the full effect of the live ammo that was used. The First Person Shooter cam shows up too, which thoroughly ruins any feeling of authenticity that was built up by making it look like somebody stopped the movie and hooked up an X-Box.

Once the video game cutscene is over, Act of Valor closes on a strong and touching note, but not because it's the natural end result of the film building up to it. In fact that part could be cut out and run standalone as a commercial, and it would likely still pluck at the heart strings of anyone who saw it so long as they were informed these guys were real Navy SEALs and not actors.

That, I feel, is the crux of the difference between myself and those who liked this movie. The presence of the SEALs as actual participants creates an artificial connection to the film that helps people to overlook things that normally would be lambasted. Anyone who has a healthy respect and admiration for our military and the SEALs in particular will want to bend over backwards to ignore the things that Michael Bay certainly doesn't get a pass on.

Even in this review, which most would note as highly critical, I can't bring myself to use words like "terrible" to describe the movie, or to speak frankly about the quality of the acting in some scenes, because they're real people portraying things that they likely experienced first-hand. Were the SEALs' parts played by normal actors, I imagine the descriptions of it being "tremendous" and "great" would come back down to "not bad" and "watchable", and certainly would have me pulling no punches.

Ultimately, the only reason I could give to people to go see this movie is to support the SEALs themselves. Chances are if you're not a jaded sort like me, that aforementioned artificial connection will have you leaving the theater satisfied despite the flaws. However, if you really want a good movie about Navy SEALs, I would suggest finding a copy of Tears of the Sun instead which is far superior in every way.