Seals hit big screen in latest recruitment drive

By David Usborne

It sounds like just one more testosterone-fuelled war epic with a storyline of patriotism, designed to make a grateful Pentagon beam. But don't look for Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig on the promotional posters because in Act of Valor, which opens in the United States this weekend, the actors playing soldiers won't be actors at all.

However the film is received by the critics - acting skills will not get top mention - Act of Valor will be remembered for shredding a decades-old understanding about the making of war movies: that while directors are rarely averse to getting into bed with the US military there has always been at least a small bolster between them, for decency.

Made for US$12 million ($14 million) by first-time directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, the film follows a mission by a band of Navy Seals involving the rescue of a CIA agent from a Central American drugs gang, that in turn exposes a terror plot against the US hatched by a group of radical Chechens.

The story-telling mixes documentary with fiction, but entirely real are the protagonists. They are all active-service Navy Seals.

Hollywood does have a long history of making films examining the dark side of war, going back even to the 1930 epic All Quiet on the Western Front, a tale of German conscripts in the trenches, Dr Strangelove, M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now, which respectively offered contrarian takes on the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict.

But more venerable has been its history of chest-pumpers championing the military. In the modern era, none is better known than Top Gun with Cruise and the whole toy box of fighter planes.

It imparted glamour to a career in the armed services. Likewise Black Hawk Down, the 2001 Ridley Scott recreation of a 1992 Marine mission in Mogadishu that in real life ended in the loss of 18 American lives.

In the hands of Hollywood it was a parable of courage. "Nobody asks to be a hero," the main character, played by Josh Hartnett, intones. "Sometimes it just turns out that way."

One legacy of films like Top Gun are the breathless recruitment spots, sponsored by the Pentagon, that often run in US cinemas before the main feature. But wherever Act of Valor is to be screened, there will be no need; it is a blatant recruitment vehicle in itself.

That much is obvious just from the story of how it came about. McCoy and Waugh originally responded to a call from the US Navy to make a recruitment spot. Given open access to Navy Seal training exercises over two years, they saw an opportunity to make a full-length film.

Then came their other epiphany: the Seals were so compelling it made sense to have them play themselves. "It became an obsession to tell the story in an authentic way. We thought the only way to do it was with the real guys," McCoy says on the film's website. The lucky post-production break: the assassination of Osama bin Laden that put the Seals back in the national spotlight.

What is also unusual is how the film dodged the Pentagon's radar. The script was never submitted to the office at the Defence Department that exists to assist Hollywood and, if possible, to make sure they contain nothing that might damage national security.

Now it is coming out, there is nothing the Pentagon can do about Act of Valor.

"Clearly we wish it had gone through the normal channels," said Vince Ogilvie, deputy director for entertainment media. Putting on its best face, the Pentagon is saying it likes the film. "We think it accurately represents a number of the acts of valour that have occurred over the last 10 years with respect to the Seal teams," said Admiral William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command.

But not everyone is convinced that Seals, often called the "quiet professionals", should be strutting across cinema screens. "It's one thing to be filmed parachuting out of a plane, but it's another thing to be parachuting and land on the red carpet," a defence official said.

In the meantime there is the health of American cinema-goers to consider, who will be exposing themselves to some high-grade military propaganda. But perhaps that will be nothing so terribly new.

- Independent

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