In the not-so-proud history of jingoistic, military-thumping cinema—from Triumph of the Will to The Green Berets—Act of Valor stands alone for its sheer bumbling ineptitude. The film’s only selling point is that it stars nameless active-duty Navy SEALs, and though these men are obviously physically impressive (in the course of the film’s nearly two-hour run time, they swim, they run, they sneak, and they apparently can’t have a bowel movement without being dropped out of a plane first), they are not actors. They’re pieces of meat that trip over their tongues whenever emotion is supposed to fall out of their mouths. Compared to Act of Valor, The Expendables looks like The Godfather.
But picking on untrained actors for not acting well feels cruel, even though they could effortlessly murder me. Act of Valor is a very violent movie, but because it was made with the cooperation of the Navy, it is correctly violent, with its “correctness” determined by the US government. The bad guys die swiftly, with a flower of blood blossoming on the walls behind them just before they fall, painlessly, to the ground. No innocents are harmed. Everything is strategic and perfect and idealized, with the notable and unfortunate exception of the filmmaking. The real problem here is in the craftsmanship of directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, and the terrible script by Kurt Johnstad.
Never mind that the good guys aren’t even written to have personalities (the black Navy SEAL’s sole personality trait, for instance, is that he has gold teeth). The bad guys are a multicultural assembly of evil, kind of a Down with People. We have Filipina Muslims led by a white Muslim who may as well be a Soviet scenery-gnasher from a 1970s James Bond movie (only his violence is of course on steroids for this ramped-up, war-on-terror era; in the beginning of the film, he blows up an ice cream truck, surrounded by a bunch of children, because he is eeeeevil). The malevolent non-Arab Muslims are assisted by a greasy Jewish drug runner (who informs the SEALs, when he is captured, that the bad guys are planning something that will “make 9/11 look like a walk in the park!”) and Mexican drug lords who help undocumented Mexicans get inside the United States.
Of course, the SEALs win. But of course the most likable one—which is to say, the one with a baby on the way back at home—dies by throwing himself on an enemy’s grenade. Um, spoiler alert. Still, Act of Valor will probably work as a recruitment tool; it’s going to convince a lot of mallrats to try out for the SEALs. Families of soldiers, too, will find comfort in the idea of our boys over there as an incredibly confident team of perfectionists. But the only people who will find any pleasure in this movie, who will cheer at every death and weep during the credits when the names of dead SEALs are paraded across the screen for one final hurrah, are the America First crowd, the red-white-and-blue teabaggers who despise shades of gray, and who love seeing brown people of all types—Muslims, “illegals,” or just all-purpose furners—get massacred in their name by perfect examples of mostly white America.