It's been a dry spell movie wise lately, punctuated with god-awful experiments in recherché des movies perdu: Ben-Hur, proving that even a re-mastering in HD, with a state of the art sound system, watched from leather seats in the Evanston Cineplex Theater 1, can't hide its late fifties treacle earnestness; and Star Wars Episode One -- The Phantom Menace shown in 3D, which is several Ds too many. A movie, that contains not even a fleeting phantom pleasure.
Ben-Hur's script is somewhat interesting as an example of the subversive fun gay writers had before Stonewall and The Boring Menace reminding one of how awful every Star Wars has been since Obi met Kenobi.
So today, with a great deal of trepidation, in total movie desperation, I went to see Act of Valor. For $12.50 in HD, in the new car smelling Theater 1 where Ben had won the chariot race the week before.
Drawn to the theater as much for fresh popped popcorn as the movie. Fully prepared to walk out half way through if it proved as bad as Time Out and others said it was.
But, it wasn't.
It's a terrific movie, maybe the best action movie of the last couple of years. You might have heard about how it was made: begun as some sort of recruitment documentary for the Navy SEALs program (although they have no shortage of volunteers for such an elite unit), changed into a commercial release using serving combat veterans not actors in a classic action thriller. With real weapons, real ammunition, and real SEALs. You know that they are the real deal immediately by the military professionalism shown on the big screen, a professionalism that actors can imitate but never do.
The story is a bit '24' ish, by way of Bourne and Blackhawk, but much more au fait and timely. It connects the terrorism dots with a clarity that most movies don't or fear to, naming names and leaving no doubt who we are fighting when we fight. The movie's script creates a more compelling, coherent, event driven story than many action films of the last few years. Valor races all over the world with a purpose and tells its story on land, sea, and air. It's a Field Manual on current weapons and tactics, a primer on the whys of acts of terrorism, and how SEAL teams and other units are prepared to protect America and Americans from such fanaticism.
The movie begins with a senseless act of terror which morphs into a sophisticated plot to smuggle suicide bombers into the United States through Mexico. We become one with the warriors as they are summoned to do what they have trained to do. We get to know them and their families. They become human in all too human ways: impending fatherhood, saying goodbyes, facing danger, facing death.
In this movie Americans don't negotiate or recommend sanctions, they act, and act with the kind of bravery displayed by every soldier in last year's excellent documentary Restrepo.
The characters in Act of Valor are reportedly played by on duty members of active SEAL teams. They certainly act like it. You can see it in how they hold their weapons, in how they move through jungle and desert; in how they sit in an airplane just before a HALO jump. Unlike any other war movie they even reload their weapons regularly. Watching them reload is like watching Baryshnikov executing a jete, they reload quickly, efficiently, with a competence borne of long practice under fire.
There is also the natural laconic manner with which they speak, the deprecating humor, the look... it all rings true.
As I watched I thought of the disastrous drinks I had with a good friend last year shortly after Restrepo inexplicably lost its well-deserved Oscar to the equivalent of a 60 Minutes investigation. Restrepo followed a platoon of American soldiers holding a godforsaken hill in godforsaken Afghanistan. A small firebase named after a beloved fellow soldier killed in action during the filming. The movie was riveting, sobering, maddening, sad, so sad, and so so real.
Unfortunately that was not what the West Hollywood swells, the uber in-crowd my friend is part of saw when they saw Restrepo. They preferred another movie, a much smaller movie for the Oscar. One that set up comfortable cartoon villains among Wall Street fat cats to pillory. A movie merely a political gotcha for the like minded.
Restrepo was something different. It was about those special men and women who run toward the sounds of gunfire, not away from it. About those who feel the profound emotion that is incorporated in the word, honor. About those who believe that there are things in life important enough to die for.
At drinks, Restrepo's soldiers were dismissed as the hopeless, illiterate poor condemned to the Army by circumstance. Dismissed because they smoked and had tattoos and because my friend's doughy, out of work, boyfriend was against the military. They had watched Restrepo's soldiers hardscrabble existence from the comfort of her expensive couch, in her expensive condo, on her expensive home entertainment center. The boyfriend sneering at men under fire, their bravery foreign to his life and threatening. His bravery limited to trying chef's specials, their dignity under rocket attacks, well, alien.
Sickened by such condescension, I asked if either of them had ever read Kipling?
A blank stare.
Thank goodness there were different people in the theater today. Forgiving of the occasional wooden acting by the SEAL Team members in static scenes (indeed they seem almost Charlton Heston-esque at times); forgiving of the Star Wars-ian awkwardness of some of the dialogue.
But, thrilled by the compelling, timely story. Amazed by the natural terse, funny, back and forth between the kind of men and women who put themselves in harm's way by choice. Fundamentally impressed by the SEAL teams and helicopter pilots commitment to duty, honor, country.
Made emotional by the realization that these were the actual people whose motivation, courage, and supreme expertise to accomplish their mission are out there even as I write this.
Valor has a very different feel to it than any other war or action movie you'll see. The way these men move in combat. The sheer technical mastery of modern war displayed. The competence. The camaraderie. By halfway through you are cheering when the bad guys are dispassionately dispatched and are clapping when the good guys win.
Act of Valor begins with a quote from a bomber pilot killed in action in WWII. It ends with a reading from a letter from the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. Both are memorable.
As I walked out, I recalled what a platoon sergeant said to me a long time ago about the difference in combat between an officer and a NCO. He had done three tours in Vietnam, he had a dangerous look about him, he had that inner steel.
Lieutenants, he said, give orders... I move men.
Toward the end of the movie, there's a scene that will stay with you: two of the SEALs discuss their latest mission. They turn and walk away from the camera. It's not just a walk... stage direction... exit walking away. It may have been scripted like that but it becomes something else.
As they walk they become larger than life. Professional, authoritative, a certain jauntiness. It's a walk that can only be walked knowing that you're the best in the world at what you do. A je ne sais quoi earned on battlefields around the world, in extreme conditions, a walk of confidence and utter competence.
You haven't seen that walk before in a movie. It's worth the price of admission.