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.