SEAL the deal: How the US Navy’s Act Of Valor games the recruitment process
I watched the military action movie Act Of Valor because there was something about it from the outside that made me feel ill. The trailer – which you should watch, if you’ve not come across the film before – sells it on the basis of authenticity (“The characters in this film are portrayed by active duty US Navy Seals”) while the title makes it sound like a videogame, specifically an App Store chancer hoping to alphebetise its way ahead of Call Of Duty and Medal Of Honor into our hearts and download queues.
These things together make me feel uncomfortable – “kids, this is real” and “kids, this is like a game.” Because kids is exactly who the film is aimed at (in its final release form, at least) and the lingering underlying message is unavoidably “kids, have you ever thought about a career in the military?”
But before I shout “propaganda!” – because there’s more than that going on here, including some astonishingly awful acting – it’s worth looking at Act Of Valor in a little more detail. It’s a relatively low-budget Hollywood film (around $15 million) made in conjunction with the US military by small-time production company The Banditos Brothers. Previously the company had worked mostly on commercials and documentaries, one of which had been for the US Navy. When the Navy put a brief out to tender for a recruitment project, The Banditos Brothers – in the shape of directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh – pitched and won.
The recruitment project grew in the making, and eventually became a feature-length film showing SEALs in action, written, on the Navy’s recommendation, by 300’s Kurt Johnstad. What the McCoy and Waugh won, then, became the chance to make a film with extensive military co-operation. This is nothing new – Hollywood has a long-standing relationship with the military which basically goes “we’ll lend you our billion-dollar toys, and you make them look cool for PG-13 audiences coming up to recruitment age” (although the logic of specific agreements can be hard to follow – The Avengers was denied help because of its “unreality,” but Navy secretary Ray Mabus had a cameo in Battleship, a film in which Rihanna saves the world in khaki).
What’s remarkable in Act Of Valor’s case is that the cooperation goes much deeper than usual. The Navy gave their filmmakers everything except a production budget: access to military hardware, to special forces training missions (during which the film’s suitably corporate-video-with-laser-sights action sequences were filmed) and to Navy Seals themselves, who in the end became the film’s key cast (these Seals, who form the pillar of the marketing campaign, were on active duty – that is to say, this recruitment drive counted as active duty).
This kind of access usually comes at a price that could give even the biggest blockbuster bottom-line anxiety (“Guys, do we really need the gourmet sandwiches?”), with the hourly cost of flight missions on Behind Enemy Lines, for instance, pinned at $5,400. While the Navy didn’t write the cheques, they gave Act Of Valor the means to look like the big-budget film it wasn’t.
What I’m trying to establish is that film’s ties to the military are obvious and strong, but not without nuance. And, taken in isolation, the film itself isn’t particularly offensive. You sense that both the filmmakers and especially the SEALs onscreen are desperately keen to show their work not necessarily in a positive light, but as an uncomplicatedly professional business of which they are proud. In combination with the amateur acting – kept to a sensible minimum, but still the scene of fixed-eyed goodbyes (“I love you baby”) is like watching a glazed ham leave for college – the film generates a heartbreaking homework earnestness, a smiling sense of achievement as simple and unbeguiling as a wagging dog impatient to show you the shit it just did in the kitchen. You know, in case that’s what you wanted.
Action is the film’s obvious strong suit, generating impressive tension during one creeping hostage rescue in particular. But here the first uncomfortable crossover with games emerges, with a series of shots and images familiar from any number of contemporary conflict first-person shooters – the stat-sheet overlay, the aerial threat marker, the ubiquitous down-the-barrel view. It’s possible that this is cross-pollination – real becomes game becomes film that wants to be real so much it forgot why actors are so useful – but it seems impossible that the parallel wasn’t at least discussed during production.
The film is also structured like the games its name self-consciously apes, with a globe-spanning terror plot, and an eye for a set piece over and above logical plotting. There’s a practical reason for the film to be structured this way, as the production made opportunistic use of locations and equipment as they became available during the four-year shoot. But the similarity remains, and by the end the film becomes so episodic that its perfunctory rehearsal of words and meaning punctuate the action like ungenerous slices of bread in a thick conflict sandwich. Or even more depressingly, like introductory cutscenes that games typically offer us as a margarine narrative pre-dropoff, an ersatz replacement for sustained, significant human presence and the minimum required before the guns can start going off again.
And this is where things get queasy. What the film shares with Medal Of Honor and Call Of Duty in particular is a lean, efficient take on the military. No outwardly propogandist statements are uttered, but they’re there anyway in the the seductive ruthlessness of the hardware, the powerful mastery of war, the reverence for flags, badges and other totems of national strength.
This is the real power of the ‘real SEALs’ headline – in the same way that Call Of Duty has gifted a generation of teenagers the ability to recognise every automatic weapon on the market by silhouette alone, and Medal Of Honor rolled out ‘Tier One’ combat veterans (OK, a dude with a beard who lives in a hole in Islamabad) during its promotional campaign (or, “its efforts to sell war to children for profit”) these cold stabs at realism speak of a dangerous direct channel from entertainment to experience.
These more unsettling aspects of Act Of Valor film might have remained hidden behind the “look, Ma” showreel had the finished film not been marketed the way it has been. Having wrapped production, Act Of Valor was bought by distributor Relativity Media for $13 million in June 2011, just weeks after the military execution of Osama Bin Laden brought Navy SEAL sexy back.
Relativity was then responsible for the film’s promotion, and zeroed in on the crossover with games suggested by the film’s title and aesthetic. There was a tie-in campaign launched on the website of Battlefield 3 (watch the trailer on the Battlefield page, get an in-game dog tag reward), and a promotional deal with Call Of Duty-inspired YouTube star FPS Russia. It’s here that the awkward fusion of government-sponsored initiative and private drive for profit create a sinister, unacceptable hybrid.
As this thoughtful piece by Ed Stern makes clear, the representation of war in any medium of entertainment is a difficult thing. And of course, war itself is a difficult thing – as much as they make for unwatchable actors, the stars of Act Of Valor do a hard job, and one they believe in. While I feel all sorts of reservations about the reasons they fight and the effect it has, I’m in no position to criticise them.
What I will criticise is how Act Of Valor slid from slick-but-unsubtle promo reel to game-savvy propaganda, which found Xbox Live kids where they live and sold them a bullshit shortcut from online killstreaks to taking down jihadists.