We'll take what we can get .... and I think we've got a good one. Yesterday Act of Valor opened up. If you didn't see it, but want to know if you should - then I've got all the review you need.
If you get the vapors easily - you can read other reviews here. If you want a review that talks to you as an adult - from our friend Alex Martin.
Before I get into the film’s finer points – and many nuances struck me – I must establish the appropriate architecture for this review: the immutable paradigm of the hot chick versus the ugly chick.
The Hot Chick Paradigm and Why Harry Belafonte Was Right After All.
On my second deployment to Iraq we were conducting counter-insurgency operations west of Baghdad. One night a Navy SEAL task force attempted to enter our battle space without coordination. Our Company Commander quickly protested this attempt.
For one thing, it would be dangerous to introduce their presence that night without prior deconfliction of our current patrolling forces, indirect fires plan, and explanation of our existing operations and theirs. Deconfliction would take only minutes.
For another, the mission, he argued, would be more effective if we worked in support of them. It wasn’t that they couldn’t come into our battlespace (no doubt they worked for a senior authority)…it was that they shouldn’t come unannounced. And it wasn’t about ego. It was about safety of the Marines on the ground and overall mission effectiveness.
My CO’s argument won out that night; NSW relented and conducted the appropriate coordination measures. They now had our support, and we had theirs. They conducted their mission and, to the best of my knowledge, it all worked out.
When I asked my Company Commander about the event he told me his thought process in detail and later, anecdotally and over a nocturnal cigar in the arid Anbar summer, about the difference between the hot chick and the ugly chick…or, the difference between the Navy SEALs and the US Marine Corps.
The ugly chick is ugly. She does the dirty work. But she does it well. (Harry Belafonte’s “Get an Ugly Girl to Marry You” pretty much says it all). The ugly chick puts in the long hard, thankless, unsexy hours. The ugly chick is always there when you need her. She never complains. She never compromises. She just performs. And she treats you right. The Marine Corps is our nation’s ugly chick.
The hot chick is the hot chick. She is incredible at what she does. Everybody wants her. She can pass on opportunities when the conditions aren’t just right, and everyone gets it. When she decides to work her magic, she crushes it and she gets the headlines. She’s a sight to see, for sure, but boy is she high maintenance. Navy Special Warfare is our nation’s hot chick.
Don’t believe me? Ok, try this quick exercise in hot chick versus ugly chick mission assignment calculus:
Ugly Chick Task, example: Seize and hold Al Anbar after it was declared “unwinnable”.
-Take back Fallujah, Ramadi and Haditha from the hands of murderous Al Qaedists; next, create the conditions for successful constitutional elections
-Each day, hand out candy and start schools on one block, dodge an IED on the next block, and conduct an all out assault on the third.
Sex Appeal: Very, very low.
Duration: Years and years.
Hot Chick Task, example: Kill Bin Laden.
-Kill anyone else who gets in your way
-Get back for breakfast the next day (it’s pigs in a blanket day!)
Sex Appeal: Prodigiously high.
Duration: Like we said, get back for breakfast.
See what I mean?
This isn’t a complaint. This isn’t a lament. This is just the way it is. The hot chick gets the prom king. The ugly chick sits at home in her pajamas and does the hot chick’s homework.
And it’s with that little bit of mil-culture architecture that frames my review of this film, in 5 parts.
1: Navy SEALs as Actors (or, Why the ‘Hot Chick’ Always Play Well)
Say what you will about the hot chicks - they’re hot; they don’t care what you think. All they know is they don’t have time to think about what you (ok, we the ugly chicks) think about them. Scoreboard baby. They get the sexy missions. The sexy gear. The sexy feature film. And, quite frankly, that’s the way it should be.
What made Act of Valor so powerful across the entirety of its story line was that it was utterly unapologetic about the use of the hot chicks exclusively (yes, all real live hot-chick-SEALs) to carry the action above the plot. Would the story have been better with Ryan Gosling playing the platoon commander? Hell no. Jason Statham? Perhaps. Clint Eastwood. Absolutely. But he’s already played an Ugly Chick (Heart Break Ridge) and pretty much incapable of playing a hot chick, so he’s out.
All that said, I have to admit, even with the acting being done by “non-actors”, they did a very good job. Much better than any Marine-ugly chicks would have done in their stead. And more importantly they didn’t need to “act” as the action commenced. As the violence unfolded in each sequence I found myself excited by the soundness of the tactics – door entries, room clearances, breaches, shot prosecution – all artfully unfolding on the screen as a tactical ballet of elegant violence. It’s what you would expect from real live gunfighters, but never get to see.
2: Cinematography (or, The Art of Hot Chick Photography)
The first rule of photography is that nothing matters more than the prettiest person in any frame. This rule was strictly adhered to in Act of Valor as every frame in every scene was full of Navy SEALs. Navy SEALs jumping out of airplanes. Navy SEALs diving out of submarines. Navy SEALs killing tons of bad guys. Navy SEALs talking about being Navy SEALs.
The second rule of photography is that the only thing that matters than the first rule (or any other rule) is that a picture, especially a moving picture, must never be boring. Here Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut uses his cameras to immerse the audience on one of the most stimulating adventure rides I’ve seen in a military film since the cockpit action of Top Gun. Using only a series of Canon EOS 5Ds and 18mm Zeiss ZF’s mounted on the SEALs helmets, we see close quarters battle and special operations exploits from the shooter’s perspective.
The cinematography in this film was a demonstrative undertaking that allowed the real live exploits of our nation’s elite frogmen to be consumed as they happened. And, for the record, I am not bothered that every mission specific detail was not adhered to – the action carried us forward and the story moved swiftly. Also, it should be said, this film does well to avoid the third rule of photography: avoid ugly chicks whenever possible in order to both preserve beauty and avoid dullness.
3: The Story (or, More Hot Chick Human Interest Perspective Needed)
Act of Valor follows one Navy SEAL platoon on a single deployment that carries them around the world on various missions that highlight their many mission capabilities, from a covert operation to rescue a kidnapped CIA officer, to Asia and the Pacific to interdict known terrorist masterminds, to Mexico for an action packed final sequence in which they attempt to take down lethal enemies who plan to launch attacks on America.
Beyond the above plot, which had all the requisite alarmists foundations necessary to require such constant op-tempo from a single SEAL platoon, I found myself wanting more narrative, more storyline about the characters. More about the Navy SEALs themselves. Their lives, their family. Something. Just a bit more. Maybe 10 more minutes just to highlight who these guys are or where they came from. What made them want to be a hot chick in the first place? And perhaps some narrative or perspective from the actual hot chicks that marry these guys.
4: Roselyn Sanchez (or, The Redemptiveness of an Actual Hot Chick)
Roselyn Sanchez plays a captured CIA agent rescued by the platoon in the early minutes of the film. She seemed to be a talented actress. Roselyn Sanchez is also excruciatingly hot. That’s all.
5: A Point of Order (or, Why the Hot Chick Needs the Ugly Chick)
During the invasion of Granada, a group of SEALs took up security in the Governor's mansion when they realized they had forgotten their SATCOM on the helicopter. Surrounded by Cuban and Grenadian troops, they called in fire support from an AC-130 using the mansion’s landline. Through the night the SEALs were holed up in their defensive position until extracted by a platoon of Force Recon Marines the next morning. You understand my point.
In the End (or, Why When this Hot Chick Wins, America Wins)
Act of Valor is a first rate high speed action that presents a story worth sharing delivered by a cadre of elite gunfighters who serve as unique custodians to the story’s ultimate point: a tribute to the sacrifice and commitment of the men who go down range. Damn few.