War movies and ideological neutrality are very seldom easy bedfellows. Sometimes there’s restraint displayed; a refusal to indulge in heavy petting that might give rise to a flag-waving jingoist lovechild. Oftentimes noble intentions towards impartiality or revisionist interpretations of valorised historical conflicts are cast aside once the Sherman’s begin to roll, the pyrotechnical excitement of simulating combat on the big screen taking precedence over any discernible message. Sensory revelry at the expense of moral or intellectual nourishment, chest-thumping “us versus them” reductivism, the decision whether or not to suck the cock of some heaving, paunch-bellied Department of Defence bureaucrat so as to secure some F22s for the production becoming a paramount factor in determining the nature of a film's soul.
Simple expediency dictates why Anti-War flicks, the red headed step-children of the conflict genre, are in the minority compared to their triumphalist brethren, it’s far easier to get things made when the military willingly supplies ordnance. For this directors must toe the line, effectively becoming glorified cheer-leaders, PR agents in the veneration of martial might.
Ridley Scott’s thoroughly vile Blackhawk Down epitomises this type of flick. Handsome hunks of man-meat rent asunder for the audiences delectation over two hours, the sturm und drang of combat superceding any thematic introspection, nuance or ambiguity. It’s a process of mutually beneficial reciprocation; you perpetuate our most cherished myths, you make us look like badass masters of death and defenders of “freedom” and we’ll give you our Blackhawks and save the production some millions. Shit will get blown up real pretty, theatres will be thronged with dull teenage receptors, the Call of Duty generation soaking up stirring feats of derring-do, fetishising over weapon optics and people’s heads exploding. Asses meet seats. The studio rakes in dough and the military receives a neat promotional video by proxy.
That there’s a voracious market for this type of dreck is evidenced by the popularity of the perfume-commercial-as-directed-by-Frank Capra-circa-1942 aesthetics of Michael Bay. A helmer seemingly more interested in the majestic silhouetting of Chinook helicopters against effulgent sunsets as opposed to characterisation or indeed substantive plotting, Bay’s hugely successful Transformers franchise was little more than one long sustained act of ego-fellatio for the Pentagon. Perhaps it’s the sheer triumphalist power of seeing heavily armed men striding in slow motion across desolate battlefields, anamorphic lens flares popping, bombastic synth blaring, the intoxicating obnoxiousness, the sheer fuck off factor of it all. It’s a cinema of retina-rotting eye candy, of pure ocular seduction. A sugar hit designed to deliver a kneejerk emotional response, the pace always breakneck lest the audience somehow manage to compose themselves and look beyond comforting clichés to recognise the cynical manipulations of the message.
Maybe for American audiences in particular Bay’s flicks provide an insightful opportunity to see where those billions of tax dollars have gone as an array of badass death-dealing hardware glides across the screen...in slow motion...at sunset. In modern cinema Michael Bay’s influence abounds, his pyrotechnically intensive visual lexicon and penchant for gaudy histrionics having been appropriated wholesale as the template for big budget event flicks with a military bent. Recent additions to a burgeoning propaganda-porn subgenre such as Battle: Los Angeles and Battleship (both glorified recruitment reels for the US Navy) were blatantly emulative of Bay in style and spirit, the former to the point of plagiarism.
But what if a flick came along that had the audacity to be unabashed in its propagandistic predilections, that was bold enough not to masquerade as innocuous Sci-fi fodder for adolescents? Hello Act of Valor. A flick for manly men, for those who know the difference between their ACOGs and holographic sights, who know the meaning of sacrifice, who’ve played Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox, this is hardcore stars n’ stripes chauvinism at its very finest.
Having shot a promotional video for the Navy Seals, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh hit upon the idea of using actual active-duty servicemen not merely as consultants but rather as stars for a fully fledged action movie, striving for ultimate in combat realism. Who better to convincingly portray Seal operatives than the very soldiers themselves? The plot centres upon the elite team’s prevention of a jihadist from people trafficking Filipino suicide bombers equipped with ceramic ball bearing projecting explosive vests into the US.
Get this, the main baddie Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle) is a Chechen Jew turned rabid Islamic extremist, his otherness amplified to the heavens just so Peggy Sue Cowpoke in the back row of the theatre is doubly sure the ethnic looking gentleman with shifty eyes ain’t Christian and thus evil incarnate. Shabal has a narco-terrorist childhood friend logistically assisting him execute the twisted scheme who just so happens to also be Jewish. Anti-Semites and Islamophobes rejoice, you get double the villainy! Yes, it’s up to the chisel-jawed, hi-tech weapon packing white folks to stop Jew/Muslim infanticidist crazies from blowing shit up.
Given that our Seal protagonists are non-professional actors, performances are wretched. However the gimmick generates quite a frisson when you consider that the burly dudes on screen have in all probability stealthily garrotted some malnourished sentry in a Third World hellhole at one stage in their career. You’re looking at pro’s bro; the real deal, a killer elite. The literalist script is laughable; our heroes talk about what they’re going to do and then proceed to do it. Valour’s much vaunted action scenes featuring the firing of live rounds look exactly like what they are, little more than training ground assault-drill footage interspliced with CGI claret spewing baddies.
The Seal’s get down and dirty in the global sandbox of US military misadventure with anonymous Latin American villains from Mexico and Costa Rica primarily providing the body count. Between barbarous East European fanatics with facial scars, oleaginous Semites and tumescent Mexicans we have a veritable grand alliance of US bogeyman clichés, an axis of evil ethnicities. Its only missing a troop of snarling comic book Nazis for the “I hate mom and apple-pie club” to be complete. If it weren’t for the modern day ordnance on display and absence of a likeable muscle-daddy lunk of a hero you’d swear Act of Valor was a Golan-Globus production shot circa 1985.
Our Seals are undefined to the point of being dough. Attempts at character development consist of nigh continuous prattling as to kith and kin. It’s repeatedly rammed down your throat that the Seals are good honest average Joes, family men transmogrified into super soldiers by virtue of their training, committed to the protection of their country and loved ones.
In the midst of battle when there’s a narrowly averted friendly fire incident, we have no usage of cusswords, no convincing emotional response proportional to the gravity of the situation, rather a character delivers the line “How you gonna explain that one to my family” with the intensity of a cadaver. When about to perform a high altitude parachute jump there’s even talk about changing diapers for chrissakes, the conversational banality of a post-carpool tête-à-tête between soccer moms. Are we dealing with tough, focused special operations commandos or eavesdropping upon the nervous chatter of a gaggle of neophytes? We get it; these guys are the apotheosis of what makes America great, their patriotism and devotion to family.
You’d imagine elite units attract certain breeds of macho men ranging from patriotic beaux sabreurs to adrenaline junkies and borderline sociopaths. Act of Valor strives to disassociate itself from the rogues gallery of gung-ho archetypes that characterised 1990’s Charlie Sheen testosterone-fest Navy Seals to such an extent that any mystique or glamour surrounding the unit is nullified. There’s a process of inculation at work throughout this flick as it relentlessly expounds the normalcy of giving death and taking death. The normalisation factor of domesticity, the interminable prating as to family a contrived attempt to render death anodyne, to make our highly trained killers shooting someone in the face seem proportional to an office worker kicking a malfunctioning Xerox machine.
War is presented as a natural and estimably heroic affair, surgically precise and clinical. A rollicking boys own adventure. There is no moral grey zone, Act of Valor a flick of polarised absolutes. It seeks not to engage intellectually with the audience, to ask questions of its viewers, to challenge or discomfit, but rather promote complacency and acceptance of its black and white distinctions. The baddies are bad and the goodies are good - simplicity. Shabal’s intent on wreaking mayhem in the States because he’s a Muslim extremist, that’s what his kind does, and the Seals are of the kind that can stop him. It’s just too facile and lazy a narrative given the geo-political complexity of US interventionism post September 11th.
There’s such a po-faced sense of self-righteousness about the whole affair, a patriarchal conservatism. Of the two female characters in the flick one is a comely dyed-blonde housewife primarily seen in a domestic context, the other, a feisty Latina CIA agent Lisa Morales (Roselyn Sanchez), fails in her mission, is compromised and reduced to a quivering pulp in a grimy South-American torture cell necessitating that the big boys come rescue her. In a post-extraction debriefing a Seal intelligence officer sharply proclaims “Morales was one tough chick...but she should have gotten the stuff up the chain much faster.” Having a vagina seemingly clouds judgement, promotes lackadaisicalness and generally leaves you predisposed to failure. Bear in mind we’ve just witnessed the brave Morales refuse to divulge any sensitive information to her brutal captors even after they’ve broken out the power tools and engaged in a bit of impromptu DIY on her hands with a fuckin’ drill. In Act of Valour men fight, kill and win. Women dutifully sire sprogglets and tend to the home or require rescuing if they have the temerity to play on the same field as the swinging dicks. Me Tarzan, you Jane!
Ironically for its much publicised use of real deal Navy Seals, the film’s decidedly unrepresentative of the travails of modern combat; at least Blackhawk Down’s revelry in grue and gore illustrated the grisly consequences of high velocity steel penetrating flesh. You see, Valour’s combat verité cinematography is at variance to its sanitary presentation of killing. Deaths are clean, there’s no agonised writhing or anguished screams, each bullet-assisted collapse of a baddie segueing seamlessly into the next, the rapid cut editing and shaky-frame dynamics generating a breakneck tempo that knocks you insensate.
The camera never lingers, showing what it must in terms of the kill without really showing. War here is an exciting jaunt through exotic foreign climes, the consequences of combat scarcely contemplated. At one point a Seal is shot in the head during a hostage rescue mission. Self-righteous propaganda though Act of Valour may be, at least it’s going to be responsible enough to illustrate that there’s no guarantee a solider will emerge from the fray unscathed? Yeah, right.
Now while you don’t expect Born on the 4th of July style polemics from a piece of glorified agitprop, a pentagon sponsored project unlikely to show the Seal as a stumpy paralytic husk rotting in a Veterans hospital or fumbling with a colostomy bag, it’s a bit of a gip when the worst that comes from a high calibre assault rifle round to the noggin is the loss of an eye. The injured Seal reappears towards the end of the flick resplendent in his ceremonial finery sporting an imposing eye-patch and looking mighty badass...
What makes Act of Valour particularly insidious though is its appropriation of videogame stylistics in order to exploit a generational culture of feeling. It’s about seducing the Xbox kiddies, those who’ve grown up guiding the deadly payload of Predator Drones to target on virtual battlefields. The extensive use of point of view helmet cameras replicates the look of first person perspective shooter games; the overwrought satellite imaging effects for scene transitions reminiscent of pre-mission loading screens, hell, even the dispatch of Shabal apes the conclusion of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
You begin to wonder if the paucity of well drawn protagonists isn’t simply a deficiency stemming from an ill-conceived script but rather a purposeful narrative mechanic. Characters intentionally delineated like unpainted tin soldiers with just enough detail visible to allow for discernment of uniform and hence allegiance. Those naive youngsters most receptive to the message add the splash of colour by way of their own wish fulfilment projections, seeing themselves up on the screen fighting heroically against hirsute bombers.
Most depressing of all however is its veneration of a culture of death. A narration provided by Chief Petty Officer Dave (no second name provided) propels the film as we hear him read from a letter addressed to the infant son of his deceased comrade Lt. Rorke, extolling the departed man’s virtues and elucidating a warrior’s code. When the child comes of age this screed will no doubt provide solid ethical and moral foundations, the tenets of a militaristic pseudo-philosophy compensating for a dead father.
The flick’s ending sequence juxtaposes the mournful dramaturgy of the Seal’s funeral with the weeping widow and child at home. “You have warriors' blood in your veins...” says Dave during the penultimate part of the narration before his voice and that of Rorke’s merge, the dead father going on to quote an abridged version of a poem by Native American Chieftain Tacumseh. “Sing your death song and die like a hero going home...” The camera slowly zooms in upon the kid in his highchair, the tot clad in a tiny t-shirt emblazoned with the Navy Seal emblem, the associations subtle yet palpable. The next generation ready to roll off the assembly line, fresh flesh for the grinder, an education for death.
Even the folksy blue-jean dirge that plays over the closing credits hammers is all about taking a bullet, “...would i give my life, could I make that sacrifice, if it came down to it could I take that bullet, I would, yes I would.” A photo montage accompanies the track featuring members of the armed services, WW2 Vets, firemen, policemen, American football players and mountaineers etc. Anyone in uniform being worthy of worship, reverence for authority, outdoorsy iconography promoting the necessary lifestyle for the next generation of warriors, what it means to be an American mediated exclusively through that which is martial.
Unless you’re an adolescent naïf or avid Guns and Ammo reader, undiluted propaganda such as this should taste like sewerage. If anything Act of Valour proves a sugary additive is essential in making ideological horse tablets easier to swallow. If Hollywood insists on intermittently disgorging such offal and maintaining its unholy symbiosis with the Pentagon, pray that it does so in the form of Michael Bay. Pray for the undulations of Megan Fox’s boobies and talking robots from outer-space as opposed po-faced sanctimony and drear threnodys espousing how sweet and honourable it is to die with rifle in hand. That’s right, if we must be propagandised, pray for Bayhem.