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Thursday, March 1, 2012 03:43 pm

Simplistic Valor lacks the courage to face reality

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Ostensibly a recruitment film as well as a flag-waving message of reassurance, Act of Valor is intent on delivering two very important messages - that the United States is constantly under the cloud of a terrorist threat but you have nothing to worry about because a group of the greatest guys ever assembled will protect us from this danger. As simplistic as the World War II propaganda films it regrettably resembles, the movie has an “us vs. them” mentality that will play favorably to those eager to embrace the notion that our nation’s warriors are true blue heroes and anyone outside our borders is a nefarious bad guy with a misguided notion that we’re a threat to them and their way of life. While this sort of entertainment will play successfully for most viewers – cheers erupted as the credits rolled at the screening I attended - those with a more worldly view will question the many simplistic notions it puts forth as truth.

Featuring real Navy Seals in the cast – and they’re easy to spot thanks to their stiff line readings – the film focuses on one platoon of soldiers, good men all who are willing to lay their lives on the line for each other and the nation they’ve sworn to protect. They’re all stand-up guys, shown as loving family men who have their priorities straight and use terms such as “lock it down” when referring to any uncomfortable emotions they have and “ready to roll,” whether embarking on a mission or taking a trip to the grocery store. They also freely throw around platitudes like “If you’re ready to give up everything, you’re already lost,” whenever the urge hits them. Nothing amiss with these guys – they’re heroes to the core.

The group gets tangled up in three separate missions as the film plays out, with a simple extraction of a government spy named Morales (Roselyn Sanchez), leading them to Christo (Alex Veadov), a smuggler from Costa Rica and Karimov (Dimiter Marinov), a Chechen extremist intent on orchestrating a series of terrorist attacks in the United States’ biggest cities. They have gathered 16 Filipino Jihadists (yes, you read that right) and outfitted them with explosive vests that contain 500 ceramic ball bearings. Apparently these terrorist acts will lead to the collapse of our economy, or so the bad guys say.

To be sure, the men who make up the platoon are a resourceful and hearty bunch and have no problem extinguishing this threat. It goes without saying they’re crack shots as they never miss, with every kill being a headshot while the various bad guys couldn’t shot straight if their lives depended on it. Not only are these guys expert marksmen but they are tough too, so much so that one of them takes an explosive from an enemy rocket launcher to the chest and walks away. “Good thing that was a dud,” his buddy says. Yeah, no kidding.

While filmmakers Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh as well as the film’s distribution arm Relativity Media want us to believe that what we’re seeing is a slice of Navy Seal life, (“A fictionalized account of real Navy operations” the press notes say) there’s a Hollywood sensibility to all of this that amps the glory and negates the casualties. Last minute rescues are the order of the day here as there isn’t a hairy situation that a well-placed extraction squad can’t handle, while you never get the sense that any of the principles are in any real danger. Portrayed as righteous warriors, it stands to reason that none of them will die, except as a noble sacrifice, for it would be a sin if any of them were taken.

Perhaps the most glaring example of how one-sided the portrayal of the opposing sides is in the film occurs in its depiction of its villains and captives. When Morales is taken hostage, Christo has no problem giving the order to have her tortured until she talks. Thankfully, she’s made of stern stuff and keeps her mouth shut. However, when Christo is captured, the United States representative treats him civilly, even introducing himself and shaking his hand. Curiously, he only delivers a veiled threat towards the smuggler, promising him he’ll be locked away for the rest of his life and miss the key moments in his daughter’s life. Wouldn’t you know it, the guy folds like a house of cards but what would you expect from a one-dimensional character with no conscience.

The biggest problem with the film is that it contains no shades of grey. There are only really, really bad guys and really, really good guys and nothing in between. This sort of simplistic view belongs to another age as the movie ends up stoking an “us against the world” mentality that ultimately fosters a sense of xenophobia that’s not only wrongheaded but ignorant as well. Act of Valor is really a very simple affair both in terms of its style and the message it delivers. As such, it winds up being a piece of disposable cinema that only preaches to the converted. Had directors McCoy and Waugh presented a more realistic and even-handed look at our nation’s policies and those in our armed forces that would indeed have been an act of artistic bravery. Unfortunately, they don’t have the courage for such a project as that would require them to look at the truth, something that’s far too complex and messy for the sort of heroic portrayal they’re intent on delivering.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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