Can a war film have heart? I had never indulged such a notion until seeing the premiere two weeks ago of Act of Valor — the new anti-terrorism thriller shot with a cast of U.S. Navy SEALs. I went not expecting much but left more satisfied than I had been by almost any film I've seen in years. And the more I learned of the film's backstory from the filmmakers and "cast" at the premiere, the more I impressed I was.
There are many things that give Act of Valor a mystique that may not be duplicated again in the film industry. First — anyone you see in the film wearing a uniform as a SEAL team member was just that: an actual SEAL team member assigned to active combat duty during the four years it took to shoot the film. As a filmmaker, I can't imagine the stress of shooting a feature and suddenly — poof! — your cast is gone, sent away to the dangers of some unknown battlefield.
"You make friends with these guys, they become your brothers, and suddenly they're rolling out on some gnarly combat deployment," says Mike "Mouse" McCoy, the stuntman turned filmmaker who co-produced and co-directed Act of Valor with lifelong friend Scott Waugh. "It's pretty tough ... especially to see how hard it is for the families to see their husbands leave."
The second impressive aspect of the film is its validity. Everything you see in the film — within a fictionalized framework about the rescue of a kidnapped CIA agent — is based upon something that actually happened to a Navy SEAL at some point in the last 10 years. And it bears mentioning there is absolutely no CGI in the movie. To coordinate such authenticity requires logistics and luck just short of a miracle. For example, the Navy doesn't let people film its submarines every day — so when commanders gave the go-ahead, the filmmakers had to scramble.
"One morning we received a phone call giving us coordinates in middle of the Atlantic Ocean," recalls co-producer/director Waugh, himself a veteran stuntman. "We had to get there in time for the 30-minute window the submarine would surface. Do you have any idea how big is the Atlantic?"
Despite all the shock-and-awe hardware and super-realistic assault footage, however, Act of Valor manages to humanize the members of our military, especially the SEALs. These are men and women who live by the Warrior's Code, but they do not relish war. They care about their families, their friends and our freedoms ... and they quietly consider it an honor to be allowed to serve in this way.
"If it represents how hard the families work to support us, to take care of one another, take care of each other and hold the line at home so we can go do what's asked of us — that's a really, really special thing to represent," says Lt. Commander Rourke, one of the SEALs featured prominently in the movie. "If that comes across, I'll be very happy with the results."
Act of Valor opens in theaters tomorrow.