Act of Valor

I recently viewed the movie Act of Valor for the second time. I was invited by the Cinema Society of San Diego to view a pre-screening, and afterward, I and a few other SEAL veterans and an active duty Captain from Naval Special Warfare Command were asked to come forward and offer comments.  Since the movie is opening to the public this week, and is generating a lot of buzz in the media, I thought it would be an appropriate topic for this blog.

A little Background: This movie project was initiated a number of years ago when the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community was under considerable pressure to increase its numbers to meet increasing commitments, and that meant amping up recruiting efforts. My guess is that they were trying to repeat the recruiting success that followed An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun for Naval aviation a generation ago.  The Bandito Brothers were selected to help create and film a recruiting film, and over time, the recruiting film turned into a feature length movie.   It is ironic that Act of Valor, starring active duty SEALs, is coming out at probably the historic peak of public awareness and admiration of Navy SEALs, in the wake of SEAL snipers recovering Captain Phillips of the Maersk Alabama from Somali Pirates, the successful raid against Osama bin Laden, the tragic helicopter crash, and the recent recovery of two hostages in Somalia. The release of  Act of Valor is preceded by a major publicity and marketing campaign, just as the Naval Special Warfare community is trying to lower its public profile and get back to focusing on their mission as ‘the Quiet Professionals.’

But the wheels for this movie began turning when recruiting was struggling, and all of these very public successes were still years into the future.    Though Act of Valor is being released  at an awkward time for the NSW community, the leadership seems to be graciously dealing with, yet again, more publicity.

Some things I liked about the movie:

–          I liked the introductory interview with the ‘Bandito Brothers’  who directed the film – “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh.   The movie opens with them speaking for about 5 minutes about what was involved in making the movie, and they offer some candid and positive impressions of the SEALs with whom they worked.  Much of this introduction is on their website.

–          The character and capabilities of the men were pretty realistic – they were not portrayed as super-heroes, rather as very well trained ‘tactical athletes’ committed to each other, their families, and their mission.

–          The level of comfort and intimacy between the men reflects the best units in the SEAL Teams.  Not all SEAL units are that tight, but many are.

–          It showed the SEALs as family men, which most are, and fairly depicted the divided loyalty these men struggle with, between their family and their unit/mission. This the SEALs share with other deployable military units.

–          I liked how it portrayed our enemies.  The movie gave us a look at the face of the Evil and zealotry we are fighting, and hopefully makes it clear how important it is that we aggressively fight these people.

–          I thought the movie captured pretty well the intensity of close quarters combat.   Some of the shots give an excellent ‘you are there’ sense.

–          I was glad to see the boats given some of  their due. The Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCCs) are truly awesome at what they do and they don’t get the recognition they deserve. I wish we’d seen more about the SWCCs in Act of Valor.

–          Ethnic diversity was well represented – though perhaps this platoon was more ethnically diverse than most.  Increasing racial diversity – for tactical, vice political reasons – is a key NSW recruiting objective.

–          Act of Valor is orders of magnitude better than Navy SEALs with Charlie Sheen,  or GI Jane with Demi Moore.

Some things I didn’t like about the movie:

The movie claims that, in using active duty SEALs, it provides a fairly accurate portrayal of SEAL missions and capabilities, and life in the Teams.  And it does.  The nits I pick with this movie are with inaccuracies or incomplete truths that can give a false or overly idealized impression of Navy SEALs, their capabilities and life in the Teams.   I do understand that compromises and certain liberties probably had to be taken, in the interest not only of operational security, but also to make a two hour film exciting, dramatic, and successful at the box office.    That said, below are some of the discrepancies between what I saw in the movie and my own experience as a Navy SEAL:

–          The tactical capabilities were somewhat over the top – on very short notice no SEAL platoon that I’ve ever seen can do ALL that this platoon did.

–          There was no indication of the intense staff support and oversight that would accompany each of these operations.   Because the SEAL platoon had center stage in the movie, the movie gave the false impression that a SEAL platoon is given a critical mission of strategic importance, then plans and executes it, with little oversight or staff support.

–          All the equipment and technology always worked. All the intel was always right.

–          In order to demonstrate a wide variety of capabilities within a dramatic story line, the movie condensed 4 or 5 epic missions into one deployment for one platoon.  The reality is that few if any SEAL deployments have included this much action and drama.  Much, but not all, that SEALs do is interesting and exciting, but not nearly as dramatic as this movie depicts.

–          The movie gave the impression that SEALs are nonchalant in the face of danger.  This doesn’t fit with my experience.  Cavalier joking standing on the ramp of a C-130 just prior to a night, equipment free fall into a real mission?  Cavalier joking after one SEAL nearly shoots his team mate while clearing a building of real bad-guys?   My experience is that when all the marbles are at stake, the boys have their game-face on, and there is focus, focus, focus, and little or no room for the distractions of humor.  Now afterwards, at the bar, that’s a different story.

–          Great personal and professional relationships between Platoon Officers and their Chief Petty Officers do happen, but the relationship between Lieutenant Rorke and Chief Dave in this film was truly idealized.   There is usually a healthy tension in the professional relationship between the Officer and his Chief, which is meant to resolve itself to the advantage of both the troops, and the mission.

–          My wife felt that the funeral scene at the end was indeed too personal.  She was quite uncomfortable with showing the public the intimacy of a funeral for one of our fallen comrades, especially since the funeral service in the movie represents that of Mike Monsoor, who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for covering a grenade with his body to save his teammates.

Bottom line: Though Act of Valor presents an idealized depiction of an ideal SEAL platoon, it is worth seeing – but go in with your eyes open.     Though it does accurately depict the character of the men in the Navy SEALs and many of their more dramatic operational capabilities, there is some stretching of the truth to make a good story and get the public engaged.   It is not a docudrama; a more accurate, warts-and-all look at the Teams might satisfy guys like me, but probably would not have much chance at the box office.   The film does provide exciting and realistic action scenes, and stays within the general bounds of true NSW capabilities.  The Bandito Brothers deserve to make a lot of money from this movie (God-bless capitalism!),  and I hope that the public reaction is positive – in the form of increased appreciation for the sacrifices that these men and their families make to fight the evil that threatens us all.    I also hope that it results in more of the RIGHT kind of men going to their recruiters and saying:  “I want to join the Navy to be a Navy SWCC,” or “I want to join the Navy to be a Navy SEAL.”

A note on Operational Security considerations.  The tactics, techniques and procedures that are on display in this movie are routinely presented to the public during NSW capabilities demonstrations and in other open source material.  The movie didn’t show the best or the latest or the most sensitive of NSW capabilities.   The film was reviewed by a number of DoD experts to ensure nothing classified was revealed.  The men in this movie know that they and their families are now vulnerable to more publicity and scrutiny than they are used to.   The Navy, their team mates, their leadership and their friends in the community will be taking measures that hopefully protect them, until this blows over.

One final thing I liked about the movie was the quote from Tecumseh at its conclusion:

“Live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. And when your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.  Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”

22 thoughts on “Act of Valor

  1. I have not seen the movie, but i did see “Navy SEAL” and “GI Jane”
    I suppose the main difference is that they got the real deal Young Lions to be the actors.

    I am of the opinion that that movie should not have been shot. There are a lot of SEAL movies on Discovery channel and also on
    regular movies that should encourage/discourage young men to join the Navy and enter the SEAL program.

    Erasmo “Doc Rio” Riojas
    SEAL retired

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  2. While I’m as concerned as everyone in the community that this will be interpreted as an invitation to open the kimono to all reporters, I’d really like a better public representation of our community than “GI Jane” or “Navy SEALs”. The idea that an 18 year old hopeful will see Charlie Sheen and his antics as the model for NSW makes me ill. At least the guys in AOV will look the part and represent us accurately.
    But, from the perspective of a guy who left NSW after 10 yrs in the 90s, I think we need to take a moment to recognize that we’re getting consistently good press as recognition for the outstanding job the guys are doing. The changes made in our community and SOCOM in the 90s built the foundation of a more professional & agile SEAL force, and the consistency of the screening process ensured the guys who went to Iraq and Afghanistan had the intelligence and the mettle to build a strong building on that foundation. I’m enormously proud of our frogs, and of the Joe McGuire-era leaders who had the long term vision to create forward bases, get off off of Navy ships, conduct joint training and integrate us more fully into the purple SOF system.

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  3. I am looking forward to seeing the movie. I agree with Chris Dugan that we need good representation out there for the public and not some Commando Caricature by the likes of Charlie Sheen or Sylvester Stallone. There are good things on the History Channel but for wide public dissemination, nothing beats a good movie.

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  4. Nicely done, Bob.

    You had many well-crafted comments in this review. Here’s one that caught my attention.

    “The character and capabilities of the men were pretty realistic – they were not portrayed as super-heroes, rather as very well trained ‘tactical athletes’ committed to each other, their families, and their mission.”

    I’m looking forward to seeing the movie and appreciate the perspective of guy who has been there.

    Best,

    Marv

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  5. Bob,

    Good comments/blog. AOV presented yet another challenge for me–I and my coauthor took on the writing of the novelization. The book has done well and is #4 on the NYT best sellers list going into the premier weekend. We had to backfill a good deal of the tactical white space. If you’ve time for the read, let me know what you think.

    Dick Couch

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    • Dick,

      I had the chance to read the book prior to seeing the film and really enjoyed the detail you guys put into it.

      Being in the Navy myself (a fleet sailor), it was those details in the book that really made it easy to get lost in the book. It made it feel that much more real.

      In my opinion I think those details could have made the movie a lot better. (Personally I enjoyed the ass chewing after the SR mission in Somalia)

      Also, I’d just like to say I’m a huge fan, I own several of your books and have been enthralled by all of them.

      Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do.

      PO3 C.T. Oki

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  6. Nice commentary Bob. Thanks very much. I’m right with you on the point about the evil we must face. The stupidity of our Afghan “allies” over the discarding of paper, regardless of what is printed on it, illustrates that we are dealing with irrational people. It’s sad that our troops have to protect themselves from the very people they are fighting for. As a nation, we need to fight, and we need to fight to win. It’s the only thing our enemies understand….resolve and overwhelming force.

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  7. Pingback: An ‘Act of Valor’ Review from an NSW Veteran « Soldier Systems

  8. I am excited to see the movie, but it is a movie and not a documentary. I am going to go with my eyes open and at the end of it, wanting to come out of it enjoying the time spent in the theater.

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  9. Thanks for the review. Just took my 16 year old son to watch this and once thru the well understood and commercially necessary “cinematic adjustments” I found it a worthwhile film. I spent some time over the weekend reading reviews and came across your blog. One thing I look back on very fondly is the quality of the commanding officers I served under. Best Regards, Mario De La Ossa (N2 NSWU-8 way back when… )

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  10. Pingback: SUPERFROG Triathlon » Blog Archive » Act of Valor Movie Reviews and Info

  11. Bob,
    This is an awesome write up. If I had time to write, this is what I would have said!
    My personal opinion was that the movie was good, but not great. As it is, I am encouraging everyone I know to go see it. The free-fall scene in the beginning, made me home-sick for Coronado! But, I do like living in the Pacific NW. Some parts were a little too high-speed for me, and hard for my old eyes to track. However, it made me proud.
    Cheers, Hoo-Yah, and remember – the “Only Easy Day Was Yesterday”, Jack James (BUD/S Class 70)

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  12. Nice comments Bob but I’m not so sure I agree with you trying to sugar-coat this. The damage is done as you say but is that all of the damage? Unfortunately, there may be more damage. What the leadership did here was unsat in anyone’s book and being a ‘yes man’ isn’t helping our future.

    You mentioned this recruiting project began several years ago, SEVERAL years ago. Regardless if the B-Bros had a hidden agenda by suddenly producing a script thereby duping the NSW leadership, the time span rules out a decision to go forward and order the guys to star in the film. Marketing is one of
    the most important aspects of film-making because if the B-Bros were not able to give star billeting to Active-Duty SEALs, this would have been just another action flick and nothing spectacular. The B-Bros aren’t making money on the plot of the film, the big money-maker here are the SEALs! Did
    any of the guys solicited or ordered to play a part in the film tell the leadership to pack sand? If so, what happened to them? If not, what kind of guys are these that would roger up to star in a film; short-timers? Hope so because if NSW is moving in the direction it appears to be, these guys have no future since their faces are plastered across screens around the
    world. Moreover, using actual dependents in the film is equally substandard decision-making. This so-called ‘recruiting tool’ appears to be a utility for threatening the lives of operators and their dependents.

    During a recent interview, the B-Bros stated no last names were being used in the credits, only first names. Despite having their faces shown, real names WERE used in the film. Worse, please tell me why an active-duty Intel Officer was in the film?? Why didn’t Duncan Smith get in there? His life-long goal is to see himself on the screen or in some sort of Hollywood support role.

    The hypocrisy would be laughable if not for the tragedy. NSW personnel and training candidates are consistently drilled to adhere to certain principles under a leadership shamelessly breaching operational security. Such actions do not in any circumstance benefit the community. A leadership solely focused on career advancement regardless of intention (i.e. recruiting purposes), is disturbing.

    We don’t want recruits coming in the door because they think being a SEAL is cool. Designing a recruiting campaign within the same vein as An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun is unlikely to attract the type of candidate we want to work with. We want serious candidates that understand war is not something make-believe. There’s no stop, edit and cut to the adverse
    conditions of a firefight or the feeling that will put in your gut. We want the guys that desire to be the best with a no quit mindset no matter the circumstances. Anything less is unacceptable.

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  13. J.S. – You are correct in pointing out that an active-duty intel officer was used. While they didn’t use the real first name in the credits, the real last name was used.

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  14. I was refered to your blog from a friend of mine, after my comment on Facebook about my feelings of the movie.(retired marine major,that you know).

    First off, I am a civilian. Who always wanted to be a marine, but having a WWII combat veteran father an a mother who was a nurse in England during the war, they made sure I folowed another path.Regretably…. I followed their advice and orders. I too, have warrior blood, my grandfather served in the RAF in WWI and the beginnings of WWII. Who received the MILITARY METAL. Which is their counterpart to our MEDAL OF HONOR. Also he received a Kings’ commission from the King of England for bravery on the battle field. This is why my decision not to serve, wears heavy on my soul and will always be my biggest regret in life.

    That being said, I have always reared my children to show respect to all veterans and active duty soldiers. My 14 years old son accompanied me to the showing of this movie. I had to quiet him throughout the movie,from his questions. After the credits started rolling, the nonstop questions began and lasted for the entire ride home.Being very moved from the final scenes myself, had to be careful with answers as I was caught up in the moment as well.My point to all of this is: As a regular, I ‘m glad to see a Full length movie with the marketing behind it. Not since TAKING CHANCE have I been so moved from a movie to say “This is a must see for everyone” to help shed light on the common man as to why we need to show respect and honor our great 1 percenters’ of our country, and to realize their committment and sacrifice they continuly make for us. In the years of XBOX and Playstation generation, it is good to see such a film where we can advise our youth, to not having a reset button on life.
    Propaganda or not, recruiting or not…….it’s great to see our soldiers’ getting the once over from the general public.A MUST SEE FOR ALL THE REGULAR CIVILIANS .

    Thank all of you, for everything you have done continue to do, and those who are still doing or about to do.

    Kevin. w. Gerhard
    Webster, N.Y.

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    • Kevin thank you for your comments. You should never regret anything Sir. Your family’s history shows plenty of sacrifice, and I am sure that through your own accomplishments you have made this world a better place. That’s all that any of us can hope to do – make a difference. From one warrior to another, thanks! I know you would be there fighting if the bad guys come after us in the homeland!

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  15. I see that it is risky to use active personnel, but to see REAL seals in a major production seemed worth it to me. What our service people do for us is above and beyond being a contractor (that’s me). My wife and I went to see it opening night–and she was impressed. These types of movies are not her forte, and she goes because i’m interested in military affairs. The next evening my dad and brother showed up and I said ‘you have to see this’, and I saw a 2nd time. It was inspiring to see our service people treated as the heroes they are–with as much respect, honor, dignity as the B Bros could pack into the film. I hope they have found a niche. I love seeing the good Americans do lauded and held aloft.

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