It is either ironic or completely expected that a film intended to make Americans rally round the flag—and possibly carry that flag down to their local recruiting office—will likely be the one that draws audiences in droves, making the SEALs the cinematic equivalent of John Wayne’s Green Berets or Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 superspy.
The film’s two directors seemed keen on pointing out that the film would have nothing in it to trouble Rep. King. “The film has no politics in it and it’s not a war movie,” said Mr. McCoy at a recent interview. “It does not [depict] a conflict on foreign soil—or anything around a conflict on foreign soil. It’s just about protecting the homeland. Men risking their lives to protect the homeland.
Mr. McCoy and his co-director and partner in Bandito Brothers, Scott Waugh, both began their on-set careers as stuntmen—and neither have any connection to the military. “Both of us did not serve, and I myself feel that’s unfortunate. I wish I did,” said Mr. Waugh, who was a film major at U.C. Santa Barbara until he overheard professors discussing his student films. In response to their readings of the themes he’d intended: “I was like, ‘No, I didn’t! I was there, idiot!”
Those professors would find little ambiguity in Act of Valor—a film whose broad themes of American patriotism and the bravery of the U.S. military are cut with propulsive action and violence (including a staggering number of kill-shots). Said Mr. Waugh, who wore a black motorcycle jacket to our meeting: “We have a mantra: ‘Heartfelt, human stories with immersive action.’ That’s our mantra.”
The pair share a make-it-work philosophy reminiscent of the U.S. military, or of the Spartan one: amidst filming real training sequences, the directors were put on protracted hold by the SEALs’ real-life missions. Professional actor Jason Cottle, who plays a villain in the film, told The Observer: “I would just get a call, and [the directors would] say, ‘You’re going on a plane in a week—you’re going to the Ukraine!’ They’d fly me in and drop me, and then I’d get a call—‘we’re going to pick you up!’”
They also adopted the pretensions of the military: “Our craft-services table is completely contradictory to any studio film,” said Mr. Waugh. “You get water, bananas and nuts—it fuels your body.” Upon seeing Coca-Colas in the hospitality suite in which we were speaking, Mr. Waugh shouted, half-jokingly, “Who brought these here?!”
Despite their apparent adoption of a military diet, the directors were not granted full creative control: the U.S. military was allowed a scrub to remove information on specific tactics, and filming was contingent on the availability of SEALs and of assets like nuclear subs and aircraft.
We asked the Bandito Brothers directly, though we felt confident of the answer: Is this a propaganda film?
“The film was financed privately,” said Mr. McCoy. Referring to the specific SEALs, he noted: “There’s no agenda here for them overall. They want to show the hazards and the risks of this job. It’s really important to us as filmmakers, and for the SEALs as well, to show the kids, ‘Hey—this is not a video game.’ In a way, it’s responsible messaging.” (The film’s marketing, it’s worth pointing out, has included an extensive partnership with EA Games, the makers of the video game Battlefield 3, whereby fake “dog tags” can be earned by watching the Act of Valor trailer.)
Mr. Waugh noted that, from his perspective, the film could not possibly be a recruitment film. “They’re downsizing the military now. They’re not looking for recruitment.” And he resisted the notion that positive coverage of the SEALs is inherently pro-government: “If you show them in a positive light, it’s propaganda. If you show them in a negative light, it’s acting. That’s so contradictory.”
At the film’s premiere, the SEAL named “Sonny” told The Observer that he wanted Americans to learn from the film that “we’re not just machines. We are human. We have families. There is that brotherhood bond.”
The Bandito Brothers’ bond shall continue, too, their service having been completed. They are involved in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback film, Black Sands. “We’re personally excited to be working with Arnold,” said Mr. Waugh. “He created the genre of action hero, and we would love to be the ones to bring him back.” Quite a next mission.
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