Act of Valor: A Casting Gamble Pays Off
by Ed Timperlake, Editor, Second Line of Defense Forum
I had the opportunity in December to see an advanced preview of the movie “Act of Valor,” an action thriller about US Navy SEALs, and my first impression was that it was sending a very powerful message to the enemies of America: Navy SEALs will be coming and you will be killed.
But I have never reviewed a movie before so I needed to do some additional research. I looked at the idea of using a movie to send a message and found this warning from a Hollywood legend: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Samuel Goldwyn said that and he was the famous and respected studio head that created the greatest movie about veterans ever made-The Best Years of Our Lives.”
So I had to respect his insight and ever so slightly revise my review; attack Americans and, through the art of filmmaking, “Act of Valor” shows how Navy SEALs will kill you.
“Act of Valor” depicts the ‘ripped from the headlines’ reality that if you try and hurt America – from kidnapping to weapons smuggling to planning wanton acts of murder – silent footsteps in the night will unleash hell on you. A moment of reckoning will be upon you without a moment of introspection as to the use of deadly force, and “Act of Valor” shows viewers exactly how Navy SEALs do it.
A unique feature of the movie was revealed at the preview; real SEALs are in the movie. A very astute point was made that it was easier to teach SEALs to act than to teach actors to be SEALs, and that actually says a lot about the trust and judgment of those who invested in making the film. It also makes the film soar. I am sure there is a back-story on it being an artistic risk in using real SEALs but it paid off. Try using a judgment standard when viewing the movie; first ignore the introduction of the cast, and then try and identify actor or SEAL. I doubt most viewers could tell the difference.
The film opens with a SEAL team being dispatched on a covert mission to rescue a kidnapped CIA agent in Central America. But recon from the scene of the kidnapping sends the team to the other side of the world in a desperate attempt to preempt a terrorist attack masterminded by a Chechen arms merchant. The plot launches a superb opportunity in the pure art of movie making, and directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh go to extraordinary technical efforts to successfully make the weapons and action sequences both thrilling and accurate.
Today’s Hollywood maybe blessed or cursed by the technical virtuosity of modern filmmaking. However, so many special effects go over a line – bullets in slo-mo, people dancing through the air to land kicks, explosions that throw the lead through the air with no blast frag damage to his or her body, etc, etc – so much so that a lot of action movies cross over into being childish cartoons.
This film went out of its way to treat serious individuals in a serious way. Without being ponderous or preachy, it moved along in a very suspenseful way. It was good art because it flowed seamlessly across a global mosaic while keeping the focus on the human element.
They also show the audience some of the latest tactical advances; SEALs and subs, ‘high altitude low opening’ (HALO) parachute jumps, joining forces with special ops boats, a series of firefights with accurate weaponry depicting skilled fire and maneuver. “Act of Valor” sustains a remarkable level of continuous, intense, and suspenseful action all shown in a convincing manner.
It was refreshing and rather unique to see a movie identify the real enemy; fanatical, death-loving Islamist extremists and no politically correct BS with surrogate enemies such as machines, fighting robots or space aliens. Also appreciated was how the film depicted the military without emoting or second-guessing their chosen profession. The almost obligatory Hollywood “Oh the inhumanity of it all!” moment did not arrive. Some SEAL teams may have pensive introspective poets or tortured souls in their ranks but not in this movie.
The real payoff of taking the risk of using actual SEALs was the fluidity of their motion. They moved like real warriors. Based on my many years of experience, the real military is just as it is depicted in the film. The physical movement, use of technology and firepower, and an ending that provides a sobering reminder of the human cost of fighting terrorism make this film outshine your standard action/adventure movie.
On a personal note, I had the lead in looking into a Ukraine/Russian Arms smuggling team in the 1990s and managed to interview a suspected worldwide arms smuggler Georgi Loutchansky of NORDX fame in Paris with Mike Wallace for “60 Minutes.” I had also gone to Kiev to identify his partner until they split, Vadaem Rabinowitch. Loutchansky told Mike Wallace that he and Rabinowitch, “agreed to not kill one another.” Both men were exactly like the very rich, bad smuggler depicted in the movie, which was pitch perfect on that character, making it ring so very true.
Finally, a moment of acknowledgement for USNA 1969 classmate, Capt. Jack Gantley, USN (ret) SEAL. He was designing special ops boats before he passed away from ALS. All in our class miss him and all of our fallen. Jack was a great guy and the move is a tribute to him and all SEALs.
Ed Timperlake is a retired United States Marine Corps fighter pilot and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.