'Act of Valor' with real-life SEALs: new breed of war movie or propaganda?
By Ann Hornaday
In a scene that could have jumped out of a Michael Bay movie -- or, in the Obama era of surgical warfare, a video monitor in the White House Situation Room -- a team of U.S. Navy SEALs boards a sleek yacht, populated with bikini-clad women, to track down and interrogate a dangerous international smuggler.
The sequence is indeed from a movie: the new release "Act of Valor." But the SEALs are real-life active-duty operators (the babes and the bad guy are actors), and the episode is an authentic training maneuver, although the yacht was provided by the film's producers. That mix of fiction and realism is just what the filmmakers hope will draw audiences to "Act of Valor" this weekend, when it arrives in 3,000 theaters throughout the country.
But the surprising, if not unprecedented, use of so many active-duty military personnel, as well as the filmmakers' embedded access to training missions and material (including a nuclear submarine) have put "Act of Valor" in the crosshairs of critics who question whether the movie crosses the line between entertainment and propaganda, and whether the military should be in the movie business at all. The relationship between the Pentagon and Hollywood has raised eyebrows before, even prompting an occasional congressional investigation.
That relationship -- sometimes cozy, sometimes contentious -- has existed from the days of silent cinema, when the 1927 movie "Wings" received assistance in staging aerial dogfights, through 1986, when the Navy set up recruitment booths  in theaters showing "Top Gun," until last summer, when the Army ran an ad campaign to coincide with the release of "X-Men: First Class." (For its part, "Act of Valor" was heavily promoted during this year's Super Bowl.) Every service branch of the armed forces has its own film office, staffed by active-duty officers, whose job is to work with Hollywood, review scripts and provide support in terms of military hardware, advice and, sometimes, people.
"The Pentagon has what Hollywood wants, which is ships and planes and helicopters and personnel," says author David L. Robb, who in "Operation Hollywood"  chronicled the connections between the Pentagon and the movie industry. "And Hollywood has what the Pentagon wants, which is eyeballs. It's product placement."
"Act of Valor" began germinating more than four years ago, when stuntmen-turned-documentary-makers Scott Waugh and Mike "Mouse" McCoy made a seven-minute film about the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen, whose responsibilities include inserting and extracting Navy SEALs, the elite operations force responsible for killing Osama bin Laden and rescuing two aid workers in Somalia last month.
By the time Waugh and McCoy finished their documentary, the Navy had embarked on its own feature-film mission, inviting proposals for projects that would depict the SEALs in a more realistic -- and favorable -- light than in such bombastic fiction features as "Navy Seals" (starring Charlie Sheen) and "G.I. Jane" (starring Demi Moore).
A Quadrennial Defense Review released in 2006 had indicated that the Navy needed 500 more SEALs in order to to meet projected demands, explained Rear Adm. Dennis Moynihan, the Navy's chief spokesman. "There was a series of initiatives we launched to try to increase the number of SEALs we have in the Navy," he said. "This film project was one of those initiatives."
He added that the Navy sought a film that would educate as well as entertain. "We wish we could take the American people and fly them out to aircraft carriers and destroyers and submarines, so they could see what their Navy does on a daily basis," he said. "We can't get them out to our ships every weekend, but we know they go to the movies every weekend."
McCoy and Waugh's proposal was accepted, and after spending time at SEAL headquarters in San Diego, they floated the idea of using the real men themselves. "Once we were inside, we were just blown away," McCoy said earlier this month, just hours before he, Waugh and a group of SEALs were to screen "Act of Valor" at the White House. "That's when the genesis [of the idea] happened, when we connected with the men and saw this brotherhood and this depth of character amongst men, and the sacrifices they've been through in the last 10 years in sustained combat."
The fictionalized story of "Act of Valor" centers around an eight-man SEAL team, and two operators in particular: a 38-year-old lieutenant commander named Rorke and his buddy and subordinate, Chief Dave. When the men are sent to rescue a U.S. intelligence operative in Central America, their mission expands to entail weapons smuggling and international terrorism, culminating in a dramatic shootout on the U.S.-Mexico border. (The story also ranges from the Philippines and Chechnya to Somalia.)
Filming "Act of Valor," which Waugh and McCoy financed themselves and with outside investors, took 2-1/2 years, with the filmmakers recording actual SEAL training missions (officially called "evolutions"), complete with live ammunition and skin-tight time schedules. When a scene called for the men to enter a small rural village, the filmmakers dressed the training site's fake concrete huts to look like real houses, an embellishment that remained after they left; the nearly 300 hours of raw footage they shot making "Act of Valor" has been given to the Navy for use in training and recruitment.
It's just that symbiotic relationship that raises red flags for author Robb. Whereas filmmakers have long used active-duty military personnel as extras, he notes, the use of so many in "Act of Valor" defines a high-water mark. "This is singular," he says. "If it's not the first time, it's certainly the most. And believe me, it won't be long before their names come out. Somebody's going to know who these guys are, and their identities are going to be compromised." (Moynihan said that "the SEALs looked at that from a security perspective, and they decided it was a risk worth taking [in light of] the recruiting imperative.")
Robb also sees "Act of Valor" as coming uncomfortably close to overstepping laws prohibiting government agencies from engaging in publicity and propaganda,  a view shared by Tricia Jenkins, author of the book "The CIA in Hollywood."  Those laws, which are included in annual omnibus appropriations bills, forbid the use of appropriated funds to engage in activity that involves what the Government Accountability Office has defined as "self-aggrandizement or puffery" or as purely partisan or covert.
"Whether the film violates the letter of the laws is a very gray area," Jenkins says. "But I do think it violates the spirit of the laws. The film itself works as exercise in self-aggrandizement for a couple of reasons. One is that the Navy commissioned the work in the first place, to promote itself and recruit. And the project they ultimately chose to support stresses the importance of the field, and glorifies, through dramatic action, the work and importance of that group."
"Act of Valor" is clearly not partisan, nor is it covert (the filmmakers appear in a brief prologue to the film explaining how the Navy originated and participated in the project). But, although the Navy didn't directly fund the production, Jenkins says, it could be argued that they heavily subsidized it in the form of access to its assets and personnel that would have cost millions to reproduce.
Over the course of their long collaboration, the relationship between the movie industry and the military has only come under congressional scrutiny a few times: in 1956, when lawmakers questioned why the World War II drama "Attack" was denied Defense Department assistance, and again in 1969, when it came to light that the Army had provided considerable help in the form of equipment and manpower to the John Wayne movie "The Green Berets."
Last year, a film about the death of Osama bin Laden became a flashpoint for Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who questioned whether the filmmakers had been given access to classified information about the mission, which was carried out by the elite-of-the-elite unit known as SEAL Team Six. So far, "Act of Valor" has not spurred a similar outcry, although Robb says, "I would like to see a congressman investigate this."
Waugh and McCoy declined to speculate on how many millions of dollars in production value they garnered thanks to their unprecedented access to Navy men and material. They insist they had full creative control of the film, although the Navy retained the right to edit out information about its techniques, tactics and procedures. ("Act of Valor" reportedly cost between $15 million and $18 million to make; not long after the bin Laden raid it was acquired by Relativity Media for $13 million with a commitment of $30 million in prints and advertising, a huge sum for a film featuring a non-professional cast.)
Even if the SEALs didn't have creative control over "Act of Valor," the filmmakers admit that there was little chance that the Navy would be dissatisfied with their portrayal in the film, which depicts a group of strong, brave, unassuming men who pursue their missions, not with hot-dog swagger, but cool teamwork and quiet professionalism.
"We're all bros," McCoy says, noting that some of the SEALs were familiar with a film he and Waugh produced called "Dust to Glory," about the off-road Baja 1000 race. "They knew our position in the action world, and there was a commonality of culture.
"We had one goal when we started this movie, and that was when this is all over, that the guys would still want to have a beer with us," McCoy continues. "They would say, 'Right on, thanks, guys, good job.' And we're really proud to say they're truly some of our best friends in the world now."