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Indecent Acts?

February 7, 2012

Over the last two days, I got into a rather extended discussion on the ‘Acts of Valor’ movie which is coming out on 17 Feb.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here is the trailer which aired during the Super Bowl.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last two days and though I’m still not 100% sure why, something about this still bothers me.  When I brought this up originally there were a number of people who seemed to agree that something was ‘off’ about this, but there were also a number of people who rushed to the defense of the film. Eventually, this morphed into a much longer discussion which helped me (and hopefully others) to zero in on what aspects of the movie promotion we felt were issues.  Right now I have to confine my critique to the promotional because, like almost everyone commenting, I have not seen the actual film.

As background, the Wall Street Journal has a good piece that covers some of the history and logic that went in to the decision to make this movie.  There is a lot more than I include here, so you should read this piece in its entirety.

For two years the filmmakers had inside access to the Navy’s elite and secretive force for an unusual assignment: to create a feature film that starred real-life SEALs—not actors—in lead roles. The movie, “Act of Valor,” is not a documentary. Instead, it straddles reality and fiction, military messaging and entertainment. It features strike scenes written by the SEALs themselves, jarring live-fire footage and a body count that would rival any ’80s action flick. Yet the movie, to be released in February, was designed to set the record straight on a group that the military says has been routinely misrepresented in film.

In 2008, Navy Special Warfare invited a handful of production companies to submit proposals for a film project, possibly a documentary, that would flesh out the role of the SEALs. The goals: bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as “Navy Seals,” the 1990 shoot-em-up starring Charlie Sheen as a cocky lone wolf. “In the SEAL ethos, the superman myth does not apply. It’s a lifestyle of teamwork, hard work and academic discipline,” said Capt. Duncan Smith, a SEAL who initiated the project and essentially served as producer within the military.

The project offered filmmakers access to SEALs as well as military assets, but no funding. A production company called the Bandito Brothers, which had previously worked with Navy Special Warfare on a series of recruiting videos, got the assignment. Co-founded by Mr. McCoy, a former off-road racing champion and stuntman, and Scott Waugh, who had run a stunt company, the Bandito Brothers specialized in shooting action-driven viral ads for brands such as BMW and Mountain Dew. 

The Bandito Brothers commissioned a script from Kurt Johnstad, who had co-written “300,” a comic-book-style depiction of ancient Spartan warriors that has many fans among U.S. troops, but that many critics dismissed as heavy-handed and excessively violent. His “Act of Valor” screenplay revolved around a SEAL team’s mission to stop a Chechen jihadist cooperating with a smuggler to send suicide bombers across the Mexican border toward U.S. targets. (A villain from Eastern Europe was a less obvious and potentially sensitive choice than an Arab, the filmmakers say.) (emphasis mine)

These passages highlight my concerns with the film.  While propaganda seems like too strong a word, what do you call it when the military commissions a movie specifically to designed to alter perception amongst the population it is pledged to defend?  This isn’t some comically over-the-top recruiting commercial with a lava monster or a transforming C-17.  This is a feature length movie that utilizes active duty SEALS, with actual equipment and tactics, and explicitly promotes itself on its ‘realness.’

Just to be clear, I don’t have an issue with the military providing Hollywood with technical support and access to equipment, but historically the process has been initiated by the movie industry, not the military. I believe that this relationship has been a net good and can allow for accurate portrayal of the military in movies (though anyone who watched Stealth knows I’m using “accurate” in the loosest sense of the word). For example, apart from destroying every fond childhood memory I possess, Transformers was fine.  I also had no issue with Iron Man featuring F-22s (on the contrary, I’m glad someone was able to get some use out of them before they were grounded).  These are clearly ‘action flicks’ and even though the military provides a backdrop for the narrative, no serious person looks at these and thinks they really reflect what military life is like.

Because obviously, USAF Security Forces could push through an ambush better than this

Conversely, I don’t have any issue with Hollywood creating films that tell dramatizations of actual events, such as Black Hawk Down and Generation Kill.  Even knowing that there will be sacrifices to historic accuracy in the interest of a tightly spun narrative, I still believe that general population recognizes that the primary goal of these films is entertainment, not education.  While I think that the usage of professional actors in these roles largely contributes to the recognition that they are vehicles for entertainment, I didn’t have any issue with Generation Kill allowing certain Marines to portray themselves in the film.

So, why do I still have reservations about this?  I think that my primary concern is that the concept originated within the corporate NSW community, which means that it was started specifically to promote their agenda.  At this point (again, having not seen the movie), I have to extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone involved with this.  Their motivation may truly have been only to more accurately convey what it is like to be a SEAL and to demonstrate what kind of a toll this life can take on a person and his family.  Those are noble goals and I don’t take any issue with them.  However, if the purpose of engaging in this kind of activity was to “set the record straight on a group that the military says has been routinely misrepresented in film,” then the SEALS really need to get in line.  Over the years, pretty much every group in the military has been misrepresented in media.  Granted, SEALS have one more reason than the rest of society to distance themselves from Charlie Sheen, but having your (very serious work) sensationalized in pop culture isn’t exactly being slandered.

I’m also concerned about the precedent that this sets within the military.  There are many examples where the greater military has followed on a path laid out by the various Special Forces communities with regards to equipment, procedures, tactics, etc.  My concern is that this has the potential to be another of those areas.  As the defense budget constricts (kinda) the resource wars between the components of the DoD will likely become more aggressive and the strategic messaging to the American people and Congress will become even more important.  Right now, Navy SEALS are (rightly) in the forefront of the American consciousness.  They and the rest of Special Operations are in no real risk of having their budget cut anytime soon.  However, I wonder how different the sentiment would be if the US Air Force solicited and fully supported and staffed the creation of a “fictional” feature film that showed how a rising Chinese threat could only be countered by a tailored mix of F-22s and F-35s.

Is this really a good precedent to set?

Also, Ravens aren’t nearly as cool as they look in the trailer.

___________

The good news (and maybe the real story) in all of this is that there was an almost entirely positive set of discussions with folks over twitter, even those whom I disagreed with.  For example, you need to go read Jeff Emanuel’s post over at Red State.  He and I disagreed on aspects of this, but his post lays out some of the counter arguments that you should consider.  Plus he goes through the a large part of the discussion that occurred in much more detail than I did here.

12 Comments
  1. February 8, 2012 12:19 am

    This is the price we pay for the AVF. By forcing the military to compete for labor on the open market, the military is forced solicit volunteers.

    A central maxim of advertising is that it sells lifestyles, rather than products. But I submit a 30-second ad spot is enough to sell a lifestyle compatible with a $1.25 choice. If you want someone to sign away years of their life to potentially fight and die for their country, you might need a little more air time to sell that myth.

  2. Scott B permalink
    February 8, 2012 8:08 am

    Tell you what… start cutting spending on the OTHER end of the spectrum (the end that doesn’t have a constitutional mandate attached to it) and we won’t have to “commission a movie specifically to designed to alter perception amongst the population it is pledged to defend?”

    • jimmysky77 permalink
      February 8, 2012 9:18 am

      I’m not sure I follow, byt “OTHER end of the spectrum” do you mean Social Security and Medicare?

  3. February 8, 2012 9:04 am

    Coincidentally, last night my university (OU) hosted one of 15 pre-screenings across the country.

    Taken on its own merits, its not bad. It’s nice to see a film show that combat can be depicted in a-more-or-less realistic manner and still be exciting (although the shaky-cam is overused, as in every other action movie coming out these days). The acting, while not great, was better than I expected, although the rhythm of the SEAL banter felt off. I was also surprised at how much I cared about what was happening onscreen, in spite of the sparse and cliched script. However, my impressions were probably buoyed by seeing the film in a crowded theater with a receptive audience.

    I agree that the Navy actively soliciting filmmakers was probably a bad idea, and could be the start of a unfortunate trend. However, this movie, again taken on its own merits, seems pretty harmless (albeit toothless), and perhaps in some ways even beneficial. The personality of the SEALs is barely sketched out, limited to banter about children and narration describing the importance of ‘honor’ and how the SEALs live by an ‘ethos’ – no real exploration of the stress involved in going back-and-forth between intense special operations and life with one’s family. The motives of the villains are explained even more cursorily. Okay, that’s about what we expected, as a glorified recruitment video we don’t expect deep exploration of the psychological toll of being an operator, or thoughtful rumination on the causes of terrorism.

    On the other hand, where the movie really shined for me was when we saw a CIA agent interrogating a captured terrorist collaborator. Previously, the narrator had told us that he “wouldn’t want to get questioned by” the agent, which in this day and age seems to imply torture. However, when the interrogation took place, the agent didn’t raise a hand against the prisoner, though there was some use of implied threats and bargaining. The agent stressed how he could help the prisoner, and worked to build a positive relationship with him. Some might argue that this whitewashes the real use of torture conducted by the CIA, or at least with its knowledge (‘extraordinary rendition’, etc.). However, I thought it provided a very useful and overdue counterpoint to the Jack Bauer-style use of torture in ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenarios depicted by Hollywood, that hopefully can be held up as an example of how interrogation can work just fine without sacrificing the interrogator’s honor.

    • jimmysky77 permalink
      February 8, 2012 9:25 am

      Thanks, Ian. Your description matches up with what I anticipated from the film. I’m actually looking forward to seeing it so that I can comment on it directly.

      I am glad to hear that the interrogation portion was handled with a higher level of realism. For all the (justifiable) attention placed on ‘enhanced interrogation,’ over the years, what you described sounds much closer to reality for the vast, vast majority of interrogations.

    • Heron permalink
      February 9, 2012 8:25 pm

      On the issue of interrogation, I’d like to see a film that made the point that beating, threatening, and torturing your prisoner actually harms your goal of gathering information, as it gives him a direct, personal reason to both resist and lie to you. Not to say I’d expect that point to be made in this movie, but for a film to make it would be gratifying.

  4. February 8, 2012 10:08 am

    I don’t have the cites on me, but I seem to recall that Navy recruitment was positively affected by “Top Gun” (1986). Anyone care to compare/contrast “Top Gun” and “Act of Valor”? Seems a potentially more useful case study than “Navy Seals” (1990).

    • Abersouth permalink
      February 9, 2012 4:17 pm

      No love for Jag? And why limit it to the Navy. Go all out special forces. The Green Berets with John Wayne is a very interesting example. Is it propaganda? Was it trying to sell a war? Things are different now, but not unrecognizable.

  5. Will Moore permalink
    February 8, 2012 10:17 am

    To wrap one’s head around this watch two films back to back: Oliver Stone’s “Born on the 4th of July” and John Wayne’s “The Green Berets.” Wayne made his film for the same reason “Acts of Valor” we’re made. Oliver made his film because films like Wayne’s are made. The annual ratio of Afghan/Iraq Vet to civilian suicide in the US today is roughly 20:1, according to the DoD (search “veterans suicide site:.gov). These films dupe youth into believing crap that many films and books debunk: Johnny Got His Gun; Apocalypse Now; White Man, Black War; Waltz with Bashir. There are many, many examples.

    • Heron permalink
      February 9, 2012 8:21 pm

      The last number I heard from an advocate on vet issues was 18 suicides by veterans a day. The military is well aware of that, has no intention of doing anything to stop it, so instead they’ll make stuff like this.

  6. February 9, 2012 4:14 pm

    I wonder if you could clarify the basis of your objection.

    You write, “my primary concern is that the concept originated within the corporate NSW community, which means that it was started specifically to promote their agenda.”

    Are you taking exception with the fact that Naval Special Warfare — as an institution — would see some kind of tactical advantage in the bureaucratic (i.e., budget) battle in cooperating with the film?

    Or are you concerned more generally that, by shining a spotlight on NSW (and presumably glorifying it — not that it needs Hollywood for that) NSW will take pride of place in the Special Operations community, draining resources from Army or Air Force SOF?

    I ask because you state you are *not* troubled by Defense Department cooperation with “obviously” fictional stories like “Transformers” or by DoD cooperation on “historical” pictures — the 3rd Special Forces Group, for example, provided extras and technical advice for the 1968 David L. Wolper production, “The Devil’s Brigade,” a picture about the First Special Service Force in Italy in 1943.

    Something about the contemporary nature of “Act of Valor” and currently-serving SEALs would seem to be at issue for you. Is this an ethical objection?

    In _Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies_ (Prometheus 2004), David L. Robb (a reporter for “Daily Variety”) discussed the involvement of VF-51 and the commands and crews of the U.S.S. Ranger and NAS Miramar in the production of “Top Gun.”

    In an interview with “Mother Jones,” Robb objected to this practice because, “People are going off to war and getting killed, in part because of some movie that they saw that was adjusted by the military.” As proof, Robb claims that “Top Gun” boosted Navy recruiting inquiries by 500%.

    Even if that were the case — he cites a recruiting command official but no raw data — we obviously don’t know what percentage of those inquiries became successfully closed recruiting contracts, nor do we (or can we) know what percent of those successful recruiting contracts would *not* have otherwise been recruits in the absence of the picture.

    While “Mother Jones” was sympathetic to his objection, it was empirically baseless; all else being equal, one is just as likely to be inspired by a recruiting poster (as I was, of a jungle-fatigue-wearing Army Ranger in 1982) as by a movie.

    I am increasingly interested in these kinds of cultural-strategic interactions, so if you could clarify the basis for your objection I’d be grateful.

    Best regards,

    Russell Burgos
    International Institute, UCLA

  7. Heron permalink
    February 9, 2012 8:19 pm

    I hope not to offend here, but of course it’s propaganda. Do you think the Chiefs of Staff just woke up one day and said to themselves, “You know what? Let’s get into the movie business!”? Recruitment is down, citizens are clamoring for military cuts, people want the wars to end and there is serious discussion along the fringes of the Beltway crowd (sites like The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Slate) about pulling back our military deployments around the world as well. Mainstream journalists from NPR to the Washington Post have spent the last 5 years writing exposes about how terrible the military treats the injured, the disturbed, and veterans in general. This movie is unquestionably being made for the direct purpose of trying to boost recruitment and slow down or stop the erosion of support in the United States for the military as an institution.

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