Saturday, February 25, 2012

Movie? Recruitment video? You decide

One of the strangest cinematic risks in a long time is hitting theaters today.

It's not a risk because it has little chance to find an audience. In fact, there are certain segments of this country where people may line up outside the theater.

It's a risk because, well, it's not really a movie, the way you and I have to come to think of a movie.

In case you haven't heard, Act of Valor stars real Navy SEALs playing, basically, themselves. They hedged their bets by filling in the edges with a few actual actors -- Roselyn Sanchez and Nestor Serrano were the names I recognized -- but most everyone else was actually in actual trenches the week before filming started. (Actual metaphorical trenches. I don't think U.S. military combat has involved real "trenches" for decades.)

On the one hand, this could make for unprecedented verisimilitude. There will be no doubt whether the actors look, feel and behave like real soldiers, because, well, they are real soldiers.

But the drama is likely to suffer significantly. And I don't think Sanchez and Serrano are going to be able to totally bridge that gap.

Even if I hadn't known about the casting stunt at the heart of Act of Valor, I might have sensed something was off from the trailers. The lack of visible stars among the soldiers might have been a tip-off, but movies get made with casts of mostly newcomers when the studio is trying to produce the thing on a shoestring. With a movie like Act of Valor, might as well put the extra money into explosions and location shoots, rather than getting a modest-sized star who probably wouldn't make much impact on the box office.

No, what would have tipped me off is that everything that happens in the ads is so bland. And by "bland" I mean "unspecific." There are plenty of shots from these ads that are exciting in the abstract sense -- things blow up, soldiers drop in to hostile territory, innocent people are saved. But no kind of plot takes shape from the images we see. Here, take a look at the trailer yourself, ignoring the release date at the end, which was since moved up by a week.

See? Any idea what that movie is about? Other than people doing what needs to be done and trying to get home?

I'm sure the producers of Act of Valor will tell you that this is the point -- these are the two essential goals of any soldier in the military. Do what is right, try to get home.

Whether that will work as the thesis/excuse for a whole movie, I'm not so sure.

You know what else is bland and unspecific?

Recruitment videos.

And if you are inclined to be cynical about the intentions of Act of Valor, that's where your mind goes.

Is this thing just some kind of right-wing propaganda? Is this thing designed to "motivate the base" in an election year?

With Barack Obama specifically, that may not be so easy to say. If there's one thing most people, even conservatives, can agree on, it's that Obama has not been weak on foreign policy. In fact, it's why some liberals are pissed at him. Oh, for the purposes of political theater, Republican presidential candidates will say that Obama's willingness to talk to other countries "without precondition" (this was a phrase that was thrown around a couple years ago) makes him a weak foreign affairs president. But his military successes are pretty much indisputable, and that's not just limited to the covert mission that took out Osama bin Laden.

However, the strength of the military is obviously more of a Republican ideal than a Democratic one. You could theorize that this movie came out when it did to subtly try to influence the presidential race.

But I'm not that paranoid. Especially not after reading this bit from wikipedia, which says everything pretty concisely, so I will just steal it and use it here in total:

"In 2007, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh of Bandito Brothers Production filmed a video for the Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, which led the United States Navy to allow them to use actual active duty SEALs. After spending so much time working closely with the SEALs, McCoy and Waugh conceived the idea for a modern day action movie about this covert and elite fighting force. As Act of Valor developed with the SEALs on board as advisors, the filmmakers realized that no actors could realistically portray or physically fill the roles they had written and the actual SEALs were drafted to star in the film. The SEALs will remain anonymous, as none of their names will appear in the film's credits."

That's really interesting to know.

As for it being a recruitment video ... well, there's still that possibility, and something like that still feels kind of gross to me, just because I'm for a smaller military rather than a bigger one. And by seeming like a pastiche of scenes rather than a narrative throughline from beginning to end, it definitely seems to function that way. With recruitment videos, it's all about iconic images, not so much about the narrative that links them together.

But really, the Navy probably doesn't really want just anyone trying to become a SEAL. You have to be (just throwing out a number) among the top 5% of all military personnel to even be a contender. So if you don't already know you want to serve your country, chances are you don't have the physical prowess or the drive to be a SEAL in the first place. Watching a movie about it is not likely going to change that.

I won't be seeing Act of Valor in the theater, but you better bet I'll see it before the year is out, just because cinematic experiments of any kind usually interest me. The main gimmick of Act of Valor will make it that much more interesting than if the same movie were filled with bit players hanging around the margins of Hollywood.

I mean, if it's bad, at least they'll have a good excuse ...

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