Act of Valor tries so hard to be authentic. From a cast made up of real Navy SEALs, to dialogue filled with military jargon, to a plot centered around the war on terror, the film wants us to believe that what we're seeing truly represents soldier life. In this desperate effort, though, it unfortunately does just the opposite. Focusing so closely on the validity of details, the filmmakers forget almost every valuable component of cinema—like, say, a story, which in the end makes it play more like an ad for the Navy than an actual movie.
Directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh and written by Kurt Johnstad, Act of Valor follows a squad of Navy SEALs as they go on a mission to rescue a CIA agent and stop a group of terrorists from bombing the U.S. In terms of a story, this plot is the extent of it. A voiceover briefly introduces the characters as they prepare to leave their families, but that's it. After ten minutes of contrived goodbyes and trite lines about men and war, the mission begins, and the action follows.
But the film never shows or tells us who these men are and what they think and feel. Are they afraid? Do they feel sympathy for the enemy? Do the killing and death affect them? Questions like these never emerge, but why would they when the film clearly imposes a pro-military, pro-war agenda, asking us to accept its subject as a mere noble and necessary part of life without moral and social implications.
In this, Act of Valor confirms itself to be a sort of military propaganda that depicts U.S. soldiers as pure, selfless, and righteous heroes whom American citizens dare not question or disrespect. Like most propaganda—if not all—the film hardly passes as art. But even if it had a genuine story and complex characters, a whole slew of other flaws would still make it substantially hackneyed.
These flaws become apparent in the opening sequence, in which the two main characters talk over beers at a local diner. The hokey scene, which presumably (but poorly) establishes their friendship, epitomizes two of the film's most prevalent shortcomings: cliched dialogue and horrendous acting.
In an effort to be more authentic, real Navy SEALs were cast as the leads—a decision proves dismal. When these macho men try to do drama with one another and their fictional spouses and families, it results in unintended laughter. They appear as if they are reading their lines as they go. The saddest part is that the film—so focused on its action and military facts—doesn't ask too much of them. But even then, they still fall short of the challenge, unable to even create characters whose names we remember.
The lines they're given don't help one bit. Johnstad's shoddy script includes cliché after cliché. The narrator, whose voice sounds as ridiculously deep as Christian Bale's Batman, delivers the most trite, unimaginative dialogue. His alleged nuggets of insight—like the opening quote of "When you get old, people stop thinking you're dangerous"—all prove banal.