One ad stuck out during this year’s Super Bowl broadcast, for its message of patriotism, shared sacrifice and faith in American exceptionalism—and it wasn’t Clint Eastwood’s Chrysler spot.
The spot began with a pregnant woman, framed by a playpen and on the phone, asking an unseen person to “Be safe.” A man on what appears to be an aircraft carrier replied, “You know I will.”
It was a military recruitment commercial.
The legend “On February 24th” appears onscreen, as Eminem’s “Not Afraid” scores footage of enlisted men skydiving, deep-sea diving, and shooting in a desert. “We all have something worth fighting for,” intones a narrator as a man kisses a woman while a towheaded child rests on his shoulder and the legend “FAMILY” appears onscreen. More footage—a fighter dropping through a glass ceiling, a military funeral, a bomb exploding, many a handshake—is intercut with legends reading “HONOR,” “FREEDOM,” and “A MOTION PICTURE EVENT.”
Wait, it was a feature film trailer.
The final legend in the ad for the upcoming film Act of Valor reads “STARRING ACTIVE DUTY NAVY SEALS,” the ultimate vérité touch in a trailer that blends the glossiness of movie production with the studious realness of war in exactly the fashion of the old “Army of One” ads.
“It was a really high-profile place to tell our story,” said Terry Curtin, President of Theatrical Marketing at the film’s distributor Relativity Media, of the Super Bowl ad buy. (Act of Valor was featured in four ads on Super Bowl Sunday, including one during the game.) “We have a film that we know—while it has no stars—the experience of seeing this film is a big, broad, satisfying experience. We wanted to link that up. It means something when you’re at the Super Bowl.”
Act of Valor, in all its particulars, is perfectly congruent with the Super Bowl—it is a film of Big Ideas about masculinity and brotherhood, in which the military seems as elite and as fun as the Giants offensive line. What it means to be a man is pondered at length. The SEALs, essentially playing themselves, refer to their sort as “damn few.” One character says, in an irony-free voiceover, that his father read “Churchill, Faulkner, and books about Tecumseh”; another chews a toothpick while surfing. Men!
The film’s four-year production process means that it was undertaken at a time when the military was still looking to recruit new soldiers—and the film was intended to be a part of that process. The San Francisco Chronicle, in 2011, described the process by which a Navy SEAL was tasked that project: Duncan Smith, who had been involved in television production in his extra-military life, “conceived of a feature film that would more deeply convey the reality of SEAL life.” Military.com describes the film as “the end result of a recruiting initiative.” Capt. Smith solicited proposals from various studios, and the Bandito Brothers—a collective that had previously produced commercials and sports documentaries—won out. (Relativity Media acquired the film once it had been completed.)
At the film’s premiere on the U.S.S. Intrepid, Capt. Smith told The Observer, “Back when this project began, we had to grow by 500 SEALs. Well, no one gets talked into being a SEAL. You don’t get recruited into it. You have to be aware of the opportunity. And certain young men will [see the film and] say, ‘Hey, that’s for me. I’m going to try that. I think I’ve got what it takes.”
It turns out that Act of Valor, which opens tomorrow, is both a military recruitment tool and a feature film.
Casting active-duty SEALS bridged the gap between the two. Speaking of the eight in the film—who are not credited under their full names and whose participation has raised some hackles in the military community—Capt. Smith said: “All these men said no when first asked to do this. Everybody who’s in this film is a combat operator. The guys who are in this movie said, ‘I’m not part of being this movie. I’m part of being in a field platoon.’ So we went to them a second and third time.”
The Navy, per Capt. Smith, also exerted pressure on the men, whom Capt. Smith had selected on the basis of their combat records and unique skills. Not merely were the SEALs not paid for their filming time, but their work in Act of Valor was set up so as not to interfere with their training. What you see onscreen are what co-director Mike “Mouse” McCoy calls “augmented training evolutions.”
The film comes out at an interesting time for the SEAL program: in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, the profile of the Navy’s special ops force has never been higher. Tina Brown’s nose for buzz landed the SEALs on the most recent Newsweek cover; the accompanying story alleges that the SEALs serve as a sort of secret global enforcement squad for President Obama. No less a light than Tom Hanks is to star in a film depicting the SEAL rescue of the Maersk Alabama container ship. And after the Presidential election, Kathryn Bigelow is to release her Seal Team Six drama, Kill Bin Laden, a film that Rep. Peter King has already denounced on his suspicion of classified leaks from the Obama Administration to the director of The Hurt Locker.
While the coastal cultural elites have been tuning into Showtime’s Homeland—a film that equates the war on terror with its warrior protagonist’s quite literal madness—and the heartland has been saluting the sacrifice of Lifetime’s Army Wives, no films have depicted the military and managed to make money. Even a film as critically beloved as The Hurt Locker made only $17 million in America, and similarly dour films (Jarhead, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah) bombed hard.
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.