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Movie Review

It's a big, bad world out there. There are people, organizations, whole countries that would love to harm us, kill us, obliterate us. But Act of Valor tells us that we've got some pretty big, pretty capable protectors on our side. Here in the United States we call 'em Navy SEALs.

This is a film about SEALs featuring SEALs. Most of the actors are active in the Navy's special operations wing, and the action sequences shown are (we're told) based on real SEAL strategies and operations. As such, the film is an unexpected but effective blend of fact and fiction.

The story—purely fictional—goes as follows: A CIA agent is captured by thugs deep in the heart of Costa Rica. SEAL Bandito Platoon, led by "L.T." and "Chief," swoop in to rescue the woman, but after officials talk to her, they quickly realize their job has barely begun. There's a plot in play that'll take quite a bit of effort and blood to halt.

All of that is, by and large, a setup to show the SEALs at work. As they chase a worldwide terrorist network from the Philippines to waters off Somalia to the U.S./Mexico border, moviegoers are left to marvel at the precision of the operation and courage of its participants.


Positive Elements

It'd be awesome if the world's conflicts could all be decided through logic, mutual trust and the occasional game of Parcheesi. Alas, such a world does not exist. Violent conflict is stitched deeply into our global fabric, and within that conflict, we see the character of man—the best and the worst—reveal itself.

Act of Valor, as the name implies, exemplifies some of the best. "If you're not willing to give up everything, you've already lost," L.T. tells us in narration mode, and the Bandito Platoon is filled with folks willing to sacrifice everything—both for the mission and one another. The men rib each other constantly, but when a SEAL tells us that "everybody's got each other's back," we believe it. These are the sort who don't just say they'd risk their lives for each other: They do it.

In a way, they're like family. And, indeed, before the SEALs are shipped off, they and their families gather for a fun beach party, complete with a glowing fire pit and food and laughter. One SEAL is very excited about his wife's pregnancy, and all will clearly miss their spouses and kids when they're off on the mission.

Once they're off, Act of Valor gives us many opportunities to see courage in action. But it does not give us a Pollyannaish view of battle. SEALs are wounded. One dies. It's telling that one SEAL, who nearly has his head blown off during a firefight, asks just one question when he comes to: Did we accomplish what we came here to do?

These dedicated SEALs don't overstep their mandate, either. This is no Platoon or Hurt Locker, where soldiers bend or break under pressure. These SEALs are adept at killing the bad guys, but they always hold their fire when a civilian dashes through the battle. They play each mission by the book. And when they return home, there's nothing these SEALs have to hide from anyone. Not even from their own consciences.

Spiritual Content

The SEALs are trying to stop a pocket of Muslim extremists from carrying out attacks on American soil, so religion is in play from the get-go. We see several would-be suicide bombers pray to Allah, and a terrorist leader tells one wavering bomber to not worry, "You'll meet your husband in heaven."

One U.S. helicopter pilot wears a helmet emblazoned with the words "In God We Trust."

Sexual Content

Women wearing bikinis populate beaches and yachts. Most are seen from at least a medium distance. One gets more of a close-up treatment. An evildoer references past sexual conquests.

Violent Content

Before the film is 10 minutes old, an ice cream cart blows up, killing an ambassador and (perhaps) dozens of school children. Battle builds upon battle, and as many as 100 people are ultimately killed or injured—often in horrific ways. The carnage may not be gratuitous in this kind of context, but it's far from reflective or restrained.

In an apartment in Central America, a man is killed (a bullet to the head splatters blood and gore across the wall) and a woman is kicked several times in the face before being wrapped in a carpet and spirited away. She's held for several days in the jungle where she's regularly tortured. In one scene, a tormentor takes a power drill to her hand. (We don't see the bit actually burrow into her skin; we hear her screams and see the bloody wound later.)

The SEALs rescue her by killing countless thugs—many of them with bloody shots to the head—blowing up a few pickups and spraying half a ton of lead into the Costa Rican landscape. One SEAL gets shot during the assault; it's a gruesome hit to the head that nearly kills the guy. When he wakes up in a speeding vehicle, he begins screaming before regaining his senses. (We hear later that he pulls through.)

Another assault force attacks a sumptuous yacht, gunning down adversaries and producing gory sprays. The terror kingpin survives to be questioned, with the SEAL interrogator telling him that he'll be well treated. (He never lays a hand on him to torture him.) The terrorist plot involves vests loaded with ceramic pellets: We see several explode while being worn. SEALs and Mexican authorities have a chaotic battle with terrorists and a member of a drug cartel. One SEAL is shot several times. Another falls on a grenade: When it goes off, we see the SEAL's body rise from the force of the explosion, then watch as blood pools around the lifeless body. A rocket thumps into a SEAL's midsection but, miraculously, doesn't go off. Explosions rock the town. Defenders are remorselessly gunned down, their deaths shown in the attackers' green night-vision goggles.

Crude or Profane Language

A dozen f-words. About 10 s-words. Two or three abuses of Jesus' name. We also hear "a‑‑," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." There's a crude reference to testicles.

Drug and Alcohol Content

SEALs drink beer around a campfire. A terrorist drinks wine. Before leaving on a mission, L.T. bends down to his wife's pregnant belly and tells his unborn son to help Mom steer clear of a chain-smoking neighbor lady.

Other Negative Elements


Senior, a smooth as silk SEAL interrogator, settles in across the table from terrorist financier Christo on the latter's private yacht. Senior speaks quietly, gently, as if the two were engaged in a business transaction. Then Senior shows the terrorist a video of his children swimming in a pool, apparently unaware they're being watched.

Anyone who's seen a few episodes of 24 would assume Senior was setting up this threat: "Unless you tell us what we want to know, the next time you see your daughter will be in a body bag."

Instead, he tells his foe that unless he cooperates he'll miss his daughter's childhood—not because she'll be hurt, but because he'll be in jail.

Christo's skeptical. He's seen 24 too, it seems. But Senior insists. "I would never touch your family," he says. "I would not."

Because of scenes like this, some critics will call Act of Valor flat-out military propaganda—a feature-length commercial for the SEALs, for the Navy and, by extension, the whole of the U.S. Armed Forces. They'll say that after decades of watching complex military dramas full of uncomfortable conclusions and contradictions, this film—for all the bloodshed—feels too innocent. It's simply too good to be true.

But many in the military will insist that this better reflects battlefield reality than those murky, cynical dramas. That it acknowledges the true hero status of our Soldiers and Sailors, our Airmen and Marines.

As for me, I've never been in the military. I won't even pretend to understand what happens on a field of battle, or in the barracks, or inside the homes of the men and women who do know such things. It's good, then, that it's not really my job to declare the exact measure of accurateness this film displays. But it is my job to suggest whether it tells us—from its fictional construct—the right things or the wrong things.

Act of Valor gives us a look at a military that America should be proud of. These SEALs are efficient. They are honorable. They would and should rightly be considered heroes. And yet, while we can laud their commitment and skill, their bravery and sacrifice, part of me wonders whether we need to see it.

My grandfather was a naval officer during World War II, serving in the South Pacific. As a little kid, I was really proud of him, and I often begged him to tell me about the war. He never did. Not really. He'd talk about some of his trips ashore—the picturesque villages, the exotically clad natives—but what happened on the sea? What happened that time when his boat was struck by a torpedo? He never said a word.

Perhaps it's because there wasn't much to tell. Perhaps his ship wasn't all that close to the action. That torpedo incident? Maybe it simply made a hole that was quickly patched and the boat trundled on its merry way.

Maybe, though, he figured I didn't need to hear about the terror it triggered. Maybe he thought I'd be horrified. Or maybe he thought I'd be enthralled—slip into whitewashed tales and find imagined glory in them.

We've long been entertained by war. We experience it vicariously through our video games, fall into its ethos while sitting in front of two-story-tall screens. Act of Valor shows its audience the thrill and horror of our modern-day war against terror. It tells us, and rightfully so, that those who fight on our hazy, 21st-century front lines should be honored as heroes.

But it also assaults us with blood and gore and torture and obscenity. So I have to end by saying that I think there's something honorable in my grandfather's approach too.

Pro-social Content

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Plot Summary

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