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.”