War movies in wartime – certainly since Vietnam – inevitably are controversial. John Wayne in “The Green Berets” and (ten years later) “Coming Home” with Jane Fonda come to mind. Pentagon propaganda or peacenik polemic, they are bound to generate dispute.
Then there’s the question about such films’ artistic merit as entertainment, which is what Hollywood is all about.
On film review aggregator “Rotten Tomatoes,” 84 percent of some 9,500 audience reviewers give "Act of Valor" at least 3.5 stars (out of 5) – basically a thumbs-up. But only 26 percent of 76 “Approved Tomatometer Critics” – those who write for newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets – give “Act of Valor” a positive review. The figure is even lower for those 27 reviewers the website designates “Top Critics” – just 19 percent.
The problem for many reviewers is the casting – actual Navy SEALs playing themselves. They may be highly-focused and genuinely heroic – nailing Osama bin Laden and rescuing people captured by pirates – but these are not drama school grads, and apparently it shows.
“Employing Navy troops as stars is a clever idea for an action thriller,” writes Claudia Puig of USA Today. “But the soldiers' awkward line readings are glaring enough to distract from the potency of the story.” (As a former naval officer, I must note that referring to Navy sailors as “soldiers” may be a keel-hauling offense.)
Robert Koehler at Variety calls it “a mechanically efficient yet soulless dramatization of the US Navy SEALs in action.”
The Monitor’s Peter Rainer gives “Act of Valor” a so-so C+.
“The movie is essentially a series of reasonably good action sequences,” Rainer writes. “The bad guys, who specialize in funny beards, funny accents, and shaved heads, would feel right at home in an ‘Austin Powers’ movie.”
But of the warriors-turned-actors, he writes, “the SEALs here have been encouraged by their directors … to be as blandly stalwart as any garden-variety Hollywood counterpart.”
“Top Critic” Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News gives “Act of Valor” a thumbs-up B. But he also notes that “the movie doesn't pretend to be anything but propaganda, a modern-day cousin to the morale-boosting documentaries made by John Huston and Frank Capra during World War II.”
But he also concedes that “given how hot, hot, hot SEALs have become after their role in the death of Osama bin Laden, the opportunity to see the genuine article in action rather than the likes of Demi Moore (‘G.I. Jane’) or Bruce Willis (‘Tears of the Sun’) is to a certain extent irresistible.”
“It still has some of that promotional film feeling to it, plus a healthy dose of worshipful mythologizing,” Turan writes. “But, frankly, once you see the SEALs in action, you may feel that a certain amount of lionizing is in order.”
There are better movies featuring US Special Forces portrayed by Hollywood actors. “Blackhawk Down” and “Clear and Present Danger” come to mind.
Rotten Tomatoes sums up its review of “Act of Valor” this way: “It's undeniably reverent of the real-life heroes in its cast, but Act of Valor lets them down with a clichéd script, stilted acting, and a jingoistic attitude that ignores the complexities of war.”
Or as the disabled Vietnam vet played by Jon Voight in “Coming Home” tells a group of high school students, “I'm telling you it ain't like it's in the movies.”