Dear Act of Valor,

Real SEALs and real ammo can only take a film so far.

Let me begin with the elephant in the room. A lot of people have been preemptively accusing you of being a propaganda piece. I find, after seeing you, that this estimation is completely without merit.

Propaganda, at its heart, is geared toward promoting and elevating a particular idea or ideology. So, had you been a movie steeped in American exceptionalism, or the villainy of foreign nations or religions, then yes, you would have been propaganda. As it stands, however, you are just a tribute to a spectacular set of men who do a spectacular set of things in the name of a very selfless goal – to keep others safe.

Unfortunately, as is the case with tributes of all kind, the impulse toward elevating and honoring the subject can end up eroding the narrative in the process. This is true of your narrative, which is slight to begin with and only becomes more thin and predictable the harder you try to invest it with depth. Every time we lag back to hear the Navy SEALs at the heart of your story talk about their families, their lives, their duty and honor, we lose a bit of the momentum of the story itself. You make your point early and often, and all other overtures toward that point simply belabor it.

Of course most of your audience isn’t in it for the reverent look at the work of the Navy SEALs. No, odds are anyone who goes to see you will be looking for some intense, realistic modern military action.

So it’s an even greater disappointment that, aside from a few notable acceptions, these moments lack the artistry or intensity that might have made them worth celebrating.

It should be noted that this isn’t true throughout the bulk of your opening third. In fact, the first real battle scene – a jungle raid to rescue a captured CIA operative – is a pretty stellar piece of action cinema. It actually does make use of filmic language and cinematic grammar. There is real planning, interesting execution, and a sense of acumen and courage that get lost in the freneticism of the later fights. As time goes on and the situation involving a terrorist with plans to destroy America (Jason Cottle, Cthulhu) grows more dire, the focus on tactics and technology from that earlier scene are lost to more fast paced run-and-gun normalcy.

As for the acting, well it is as good as can be expected of any nonprofessional actor cast purely due to their acumen in another field, including Navy SEALs. While their skill and training come through in every battle scene, the moments that require any actual acting come across a little flat and stilted. This is especially true in the between-battle scenes filled with video-game-esque exposition on coming fights, previous acts, and newly received intelligence that serve as the weak narrative mortar holding together the vague narrative.

There is one spot here in which the acting does reach a level well worth mentioning; an interrogation scene that refreshingly relies on no physical threats or bombast from the interrogator and no mustache-twirling villainy from the antagonist. There is a weird level of professionalism from both sides, and the exchange between them is full of life and wit.

Still, there is fun to be wrung from the moments in between the bald-faced sentimentalizing and stiffly delivered exposition. As I said, your SEAL actors create some convincing and engaging action, and that interrogation is something I would want to see again. I just wish that more care had been spent in staging set pieces which might have showcased the real skill and precision of these servicemen, rather than simply pointing a camera at them artlessly during fire fights.

You never had a shot at being a good movie in a dramatic or artistic sense, but you could have been a gripping, above-the-cut realistic action film. Instead, you settle for being slightly interesting and sporadically entertaining, and assume that will be good enough.

For what it’s worth,

Brian J. Roan

About Brian J. Roan

Brian J. Roan has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He works in the PR industry. Follow him on twitter @BrianJRoan