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En español | Finding fault in Act of Valor, an action adventure film featuring real Navy SEALS playing themselves in a fictionalized depiction of a globe-spanning special ops assignment, is a thankless task. Here are these undeniably appealing, brave and patriotic guys who have without a doubt, time after time, put their lives on the line for me and my family. And here are their own real-life wives and children, also portraying movie versions of themselves, reenacting the heartbreak of seeing their husbands and fathers head off for unnamed destinations on desperately dangerous missions.
And here am I, paunchy, middle-aged, winded by a brisk climb up a few flights of stairs, sitting in judgment of these genuine heroes' big moment on the big screen. For me to say Act of Valor is a by-the-numbers actioner with barely serviceable performances and close-combat battle scenes that are a step or two above your standard first-person video shooter game would be accurate, but in the end I'd be missing the point. I'd be ignoring an essential role war movies play in reminding the privileged masses of the debt we owe to those who re-win that privilege for us every day.
My parents were part of the generation who flocked to see movies starring Audie Murphy, the World War II Medal of Honor winner who played himself, at times a bit woodenly, in To Hell and Back — one of the most successful movies of all time. Opponents of the Vietnam War despised it, but John Wayne's The Green Berets (like Act of Valor made with U.S. military cooperation) was an enormous hit in 1968, giving audiences at least the illusion of experiencing jungle battle with their boys half a world away.
So as a film Act of Valor has a long and honorable pedigree, one that transcends the art of cinema. Those sometimes wobbly performances carry an air of authenticity you would never get from Hollywood pretty boys. The rock-steady way these guys aim a rifle, the skill with which they emerge from water without so much as a ripple, the way they step off the back of a flying troop transport like you and I would walk off an escalator, these are the things you can't fake.
The producer/directors, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, could have done a better job of delineating just who is an actor in the movie and who is a newbie — the real SEALS are uncredited and the thespians are virtual unknowns, so it doesn't help much to read the credits. There are only a few memorable performances: Alex Veadov is deliciously cold-blooded as the murderous Russian villain (happily, the producers did not enlist real killers to play the bad guys). A fellow who appears as a Navy interrogator is unexpectedly funny — he may be a real SEAL, because I can't find him on the cast list. I was impressed with the way the wife of a departing SEAL collapses in tears the moment he's out of sight — until I discovered on the cast list that she was a ringer (Ailsa Marshall). This is the kind of guessing game you end up playing while watching Act of Valor, and while such ambiguity presumably protects the identities of these undercover operators and their families, it's a bit distracting.
The producers would like us to think we honor our troops by buying a ticket to Act of Valor. That could be true, I guess. Like its predecessors, the film certainly throws a light on the sacrifices associated with military life. As for this particular group of SEALS, I do hope there are no military rules that prevented them from picking up a paycheck for this movie — their one assignment where, for once, the only people sniping at them are out-of-shape, overfed movie critics.