Act of Valor, directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Starring Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Emilio Rivera. Released by Relativity Media (2012). Rated Rated R for strong violence, including
some torture, and for language. Running time: 101 minutes.
Author’s note: Because I want to address several key events of this story, I’ve written this review in a way that contains spoilers. Readers may prefer to view this outstanding film before reading the review.
For anyone who loves America and wants the country defended against Islamic totalitarians and other savage enemies, a film starring active-duty Navy SEALs doing precisely that should be a rare treat. Act of Valor is that film, and it delivers fulsomely on this promise.
The movie is a fictionalized version of the sort of missions America’s elite commandos engage in. It portrays the tactics, methods, technology, and overwhelming fire power that America brings to bear on her foes when her political leaders permit the U.S. military to take off the gloves and obliterate our enemies.
In the story, various jihadist factions are in league with Russian smugglers and Mexican drug cartels that are to help the Islamists slip across the Mexican border into America. There, armed with nonmetallic vest bombs and deploying female suicide bombers, the jihadists will disperse to every major city, enter crowded public venues, detonate the bombs, and murder countless American civilians.
The SEALs’ mission is to stop them. They do so by means of surreptitious surveillance, uncompromising interrogation, and ruthless assault. Several scenes early in the movie, at the beginning of the causal sequence leading to the climax, showcase both the heroes’ prowess and their dedication to defending America.
The smugglers’ minions in Costa Rica murder one CIA agent investigating their connection to jihadists and kidnap another, whom they torture for information. The SEALs’ first step is to rescue the CIA agent and retrieve information from both her and the criminals. They perform a night jump into the Costa Rican jungle and approach the enemy stronghold. Stealthily, they move into position. They maintain contact with the Swift Boats inserted by helicopter for their exfiltration. They control an airborne surveillance technology, called a Raven, enabling their squad leader to witness via personal computer—in real time—enemy activity within the stronghold and to convey information to the men on the ground. The team deploys a lethal sniper who, silently, terminates fully a half dozen foes before the enemy realizes they are under assault. Then the team attacks.
They kill the enemy and rescue the maimed CIA agent. But as they gather information from the enemy camp and care for their wounded, truckloads of enemy foot soldiers approach the stronghold at high speed. The SEALs commandeer a truck and race toward the rendezvous point with the enemy in pursuit. The SEALs inflict severe casualties on the foe but are heavily outnumbered. They splash their truck into the water. The enemy trucks race to the riverbank. The SEALs will be sitting ducks.
But in a heart-pounding scene that makes viewers stand and applaud, the Swift Boats roar around a bend in the river, guns blazing, and devastate the thugs. In a vivid display of the immense firepower of the U.S. Navy in service of the good, the SEALs and the CIA agent are rescued.
Among its many virtues, the film depicts the U.S. military’s global reach. The jihadists’ plan is to rendezvous, from various points in the Arab-Islamic world, at a desert airstrip in Somalia; to fly to Mexico; and, from there, to infiltrate the United States. The U.S. military knows this via information gathered from a cell phone at the smugglers’ Costa Rican stronghold.
The SEAL team is headquartered for the mission on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier stationed off the Costa Rican coast. Two SEALs are deployed by jet across the ocean, where they parachute into the sea and rendezvous with a navy submarine that takes them through the dangerous waters off the Somali coast. They eventually make their way to the rocky hills, where they stealthily observe the meet-up of jihadists and transmit the information to their superiors. U.S. spy planes and satellites monitor the enemy planes as they fly to Mexico.
Meanwhile, the Russian smuggler, already wealthy and now intimidated by prospective war with the U.S. military, retires with his family and his yacht to the South Pacific. One of the SEAL team leaders deploys to the South Seas with another SEAL team; they storm the yacht, kill the ex-smuggler’s bodyguards, and apprehend and interrogate this criminal ally of the jihadists. Employing powerful psychological warfare that simultaneously demonstrates the Americans’ humaneness and their uncompromising resolve, the interrogator gains the information he needs. The SEAL team stationed on a carrier off Costa Rica immediately deploys to Mexico to engage the jihadists and their drug cartel allies in the story’s climactic battle.
The film conveys the inspiring truth that the U.S. military has a global reach. There is no place on earth the bad guys can hide from us.
One scene in the film may raise a question among advocates of the morality of self-interest. In the heat of battle, a featured SEAL takes an action that is crucial to the mission but that will lead to his certain death. Is this a sacrifice? In answer, remember that rational selfishness is a commitment to one’s deliberately chosen values and that there are some values without which life is not worth living. Consider, for example, that it is rationally understandable for a loving parent to throw his or her body in front of a bus to save a beloved child, the loss of whom would be spiritually crushing. To many rational parents, the question, “which is of greater value to me, my life without my child, or my child’s life without mine?,” is definitively answered in favor of the child’s life. A suicidal action on the part of such a parent—if it is the only possible means of saving his child—is a selfish action.
Similarly, a Navy SEAL knowingly chose a career that is inherently fraught with lethal danger. In a SEAL’s hierarchy of values, the mission must and does come first—regardless of peril to his life. His commitment to the mission—which, in some form, is always to defend American lives and freedom—is uncompromising. This value takes precedence over all other considerations, even that of his own life. If an enemy action that threatens the entire team—and thereby, the mission—can be thwarted only by a suicidal action of a team member, then this is the proper action for him to perform. Again, such an act is driven by an individual’s rationally chosen purpose: to protect the freedom on which human life and all of his values depend. As such, it is utterly selfish.
In this regard, there is a beautifully touching scene in the film. At the funeral, the navy officer commemorating the fallen SEAL does not say to the grieving wife, “In honor of your husband’s sacrifice . . .” He says to her, “In recognition of your husband’s heroic achievement . . .”
Many critics have complained about the acting in this film. But, given that the main characters are portrayed by trained warriors, not professional actors, the acting is better than viewers might expect, and is far superior to that of some Hollywood actors playing similar roles.
Act of Valor is full of fast-paced, virtually nonstop combat. What separates it from countless other action movies, is the searing clarity with which it presents the values driving the heroes: an unwavering commitment to protect Americans from murderous aggressors. This is why I have seen this movie eight times. And it is why I will see it again.