Call of Duty: The Movie, for better or worse
By Jack Kentala
(Preface, before I forget: If you can’t read between my smushed-together lines, I’ll come out and say I liked Act of Valor. I systematically pushed my expectations to their absolute lowest level so that it’d be impossible not for me to enjoy this film. And while the film itself may have its own ulterior motives, it felt like a nice Fuck You to see it on Oscar night, which is the official policy of this critic/filmmaker/alto-saxophonist to not watch.)
In the Call of Duty videogame series, players usually inhabit the roles of faceless soldiers on the front lines of rather intense battles. You play it in first person; when you aim your gun, you literally pull it up to your virtual, invisible face and look down iron sights or a scope. In short: It wants you to feel what it’s like in a hot combat zone. The first time I played it, I could only play a mission or two at a time, since my veins had yet to learn to pump ice water when playing any COD.
Within this framework, there’s usually a very small handful of characters who are integral to the plot and, for the sake of the player’s sanity, they are made bulletproof. If they get shot, they fall down and are combat ineffective for a few seconds, and then they get right back up.
Meanwhile, in the maelstrom of combat, you’re often supported by an endless wave of allies. These poor souls usually don’t last long and, when your crosshairs float over them, you see their phonebook-plucked name, lowly rank, and a stock polygonal model out of probably about twenty varieties. These serve in stark contrast to characters seen in games like the megaselling Call of Modern: Modern Warfare series, featuring guys who have names and appearances that stick: there’s the SAS badass Captain Price, who always goes into combat with only his trademark soft-cover boonie and never a helmet; his mohawked protege “Soap” MacTavish who can’t seem to wash the tactical facepaint off his mug; or the fan-favorite-but-killed-off-anyway “Ghost,” sporting a facemask of a skeleton.
When playing these games on the hardest difficulties – the proper-noun Hardened and the controller-throwing frustration of Veteran – you spend a lot of time flat on the ground, either waiting for your health to magically regenerate or to pick your way across a map in rightful fear of a life-ending headshot if you even, god forbid, rise to a kneel.
I’ve beaten all Modern Warfare games on Veteran – and I say that as a sort of full disclosure rather than trying to impress the zero Dinca readers who give a shit because, honestly, it’s more part of my obsessive nature than flashing those pointless Achievements on my gamercard – and I’ve seen a lot of guys die. But not Price. Not Soap. Sure, I’ve accidentally shot them one too many times in a dark corridor and had to reset to the last checkpoint. (The only consequence besides the reset is a blurred-out screen with “Friendly fire will not be tolerated!”) But those other guys with template last name plucked off a spreadsheet? Those guys get slaughtered. And, no matter the circumstances, they keep magically surfacing from the rear, seem to lack the visual acumen to survey the piles of their fallen comrades, and end up as fresh corpses themselves. You could literally camp out in a corner, just out of harm’s way, and watch these dudes get popped in the grape all goddamn guy.
So therein lies the greatest problem with the feature-length Navy recruitment film, Act of Valor: There’s no Price. There’s no Soap. There’s simply a bunch of guys without personalities rushing into the heat of battles. These are the apparently-“active” “duty” Navy SEALs who are supposed to guide us through Act of Valor. There’s absolutely nothing personable or sympathetic about them. Yeah, one is an expectant father (though it became impossible to tell the difference between him and his similar-looking best buddyroo). Another is black and has a gold tooth. Some are older. Some are younger. But it’s the same middling rush of anonymous white guys like Call of Duty cannon fodder.
But wait–! Unlike the COD masses rushing onward toward a quick, painless death, the SEALs in Act of Valor are relatively bulletproof. As a Navy recruitment film (and I’m not making this up; if nothing else, check out this Huffington Post article [which, to remain neutral in these thoughts, I haven’t read in full]), there’s a very clear message: if this movie, somehow, makes you want to become a SEAL, the Navy sneakily assures you that you won’t get hurt. Well, that, or you’ll die a motherfuckingly-heroic death. Other than that, one guy loses an eye but doesn’t seem to mind. Another is shot about twenty times but merely ends up in wheelchair.
So it’s all pretty easy according to the Navy’s version of modern warfare in Act of Valor: No, you won’t get both your hands blown off by an IED. You won’t go mad from PTSD. You’ll only face up against Bad Guys, and you won’t have to make any tough moral choices or follow questionable orders. Shit, you’ll even get to check out exotic locales like Costa Rica, Somalia, and an island off Baja California.
That in mind, there’s not a single mention of the endless War on Terror. Unless I am horrifically mistaken, “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” or any of those bothersome Arab states (or Iran or Pakistan) are never mentioned. This is particularly confusing when, at the start, a graphic pops up when each forgettable SEAL is introduced; it lists the number of tours aforementioned SEAL has completed, though it never say where such tour occurred.
It’s a troubling whitewashing of the United States’ current woes overseas (which, coincidentally, the Modern Warfare videogames also avoid like a shitstick; the developers prefer the safe choice to make The Russians the permanent bad guys). The main antagonist of Act of Valor is an Islamic extremist, but he’s a white Chechen who converted to Islam. Worse: His recruited suicide bombers are also converts, and they’re, for whatever reason, Filipinos. It’s unwieldy plotting because if the movie is going for the gold-standard “Realism” (which is impossible to determine lest you were/are actually a SEAL), it has to take into account that, other than run-of-the-mill encounters with Somali pirates and something as daring as the bin Laden takedown (to be made into probably over a hundred movies over the century; at least Kathryn Bigelow’s will certainly be good), the US military is spending an awful lot of time fighting a bunch of dudes who misinterpreted the Koran and are easily manipulated.
While I’m on the topic of political correctness, I also have to raise the flag on a sequence in Mexico conducted with what I assume are sort of Mexican Special Forces. It involves smuggling people into the States, and instead of going “the easy route” through Canada, it seems the sequence was wedged in there to remind everyone that, technically, Mexico are our allies. (But so is Pakistan, and look how well that’s going.)
There’s also an interrogation scene that, for the sake of brevity and the plot’s timeline, lasts about two minutes. I’m sure the start of the interrogation uses tactics common to skilled interrogators – namely, talking about bullshit just to get the interrogatee talking and to confuse their mental defenses – but it’s absolutely ridiculous. The guy gives up intel with only the implied idea that he’s cutting a deal in which he’ll be able to go back to his family; “Senior,” the guy ostensibly in charge of SEAL Team Seven, only offers the alternate that the Bad Guy would otherwise spend the rest of his life in a “box.” The only aggression shown by Senior is when he cuts the bullshit and, when cued for something dramatic, just kind of sweeps a glass off the table and talks a shade more menacing. No secret CIA prison. No Enhanced Interrogation Techniques; no waterboarding. The Navy, as portrayed in Act of Valor, doesn’t do that! Of course not! It’s like an alternate fantasy world where Guantanamo Bay simply doesn’t exist; where one of Our Own, Bradley Manning (I’ll straight-up say it: that kid is a fucking hero), is under lockdown and solitary confinement, staring down life in prison for what many consider to be one of the most patriotic acts in recent history (e.g. revealing a bunch of docs most of us already knew about or were declassified).
I’ll round out the political correctness: I know Today’s Military is supposedly changing (what with letting The Gays in and all), but the movie takes great pains to show women in leadership roles. In some rare spots it doesn’t clash. But considering that SEALs are one of the last bastion’s of all-male dick-measuring (and all such Alpha Male-ism was scrubbed from Act of Valor), I don’t buy some of the scenes where the SEALs are partly briefed by a woman. That is, without them cracking wise either on the spot or later.
But as for actual Movie Stuff, I’ll offer this minority opinion: the “active” “duty” SEALs aren’t nearly as horrid actors are you’d expect. Sure, the between-mission joshing is too scripted and forced for non-pros, but in the heat of ops, it seems right. Military operations are about killing off your emotional side and becoming a machine of pure logic; communication is used to relay concise action, not emotion. So if it seems stiff when a should-be-stressed-out sniper during one mission isn’t stressed out, well, I can only think of all the books I’ve read and all the secondhand accounts I’ve heard about the need to get completely iced out before and during combat. (And it’s This Writer’s opinion that, unfortunately, that is what probably causes such massive outbreaks of PTSD during wartime. But if that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have as effective and terrifying of a military as we do today.) So it’s a no-win situation: If there was heightened emotion in the action scenes, it wouldn’t be “authentic,” and with the “authentic,” clipped way the SEALs go about their business, the average Michael Bay fan might feel a tad cold. (Update: Box office receipts differ.)
The jarring bad-acting moments come out of contrast. The first is a long voiceover that starts the film and carries most of the way through that doesn’t make any sense until about halfway, and it’s read with all the woodenness of a Speak ‘n Spell; it doesn’t help that it’s mostly a bulleted list about such now-vague words as Honor and Courage. The biggest disconnect comes during a scene between the two main Bad Guys, who are professional actors. It’s a quick scene that won’t win any screenwriting awards, but it’s like Orson Welles suddenly showed up for a scene and, by comparison, remind why they’re pro actors. (Kind of how Welles hijacked the part in The Third Man when he gives his famous “cuckoo clock speech.” No offense to the acting capabilities of Joseph Cotton.)
I’ll also offer another choice nugget: Considering that the two directors of this film cut their teeth as stuntmen, this is a pretty good debut. Maybe they had an awesome AD. Or, since it shines best in the action scenes, credit the ASC-approved cinematographer or the squadron of editors. The latter probably did the best they could out of the jumble (and also with the Navy breathing down their neck since they had final cut approval; they apparently were very specific about taking out certain shots and even frames that they didn’t find too flattering or maybe revealed some awesome super-rifle we’re not supposed to know exists), what with a POV that jumps all over the fuckin’ place. There are aerial shots from drones, shots only possible using nightvision cameras, and a lot of Call of Duty-borrowed helmet-mounted cameras that are always slightly off axis and, in general, more annoying than visceral.
Act of Valor, as a whole, seems made by guys who play as much Call of Duty as I do; and Call of Duty itself, in its single-player campaign, aspires to find the same drama as a blockbuster action film with all the realism of its Modern Warfare suffix. And, like COD, the music usually dies out when action happens, since a soundtrack of gunshots gives that hard bass hit to the midsection far better than any sad strings. But the sad strings are there when there’s the need to add some cheese or try to force reflection after the adrenaline-wash aftermath of combat, a quick rampdown of excitement from 1,000 to 10. One second, bullets zip past your ears. The next, you’re on a bird or a boat out of a hot zone. In Act of Valor, this first happens after the film’s first mission, with the SEALs taking swifts out of an enemy encampment, suddenly on a peaceful river in Costa Rica and not hauling ass down dirt roads, chased by successive waves of militamen. Considering the nature of the mission – a hostage rescue that, spoiler be spoiled, was arguably successful – the SEALs probably were trying to push out any bullshit heroics to stay combat effective lest they need to go back to their guns.
It works. (And not just because it’s a bunch of pretty shots of cool tech and ghillie’d up men that cement the status of SEALs as Real American Heroes.) It reminds me of a late-game sequence in the latest COD game, Modern Warfare 3, in which you’re pulling a VIP out a Siberian diamond mine. The game throws you into a familiar Saving Private Ryan-cribbing shell shock, and while you’re being dragged away in what is basically a non-interactive cutscene, you get a gun to ineffectively target the enormous quantities of Russians converging on your position, your aim all wobbly because you’re seriously injured. The series’ trademark Courageous-Yet-Wistful Music kicks in as you’re dragged to a helo, all while watching heroic Delta operators stay behind and cover you in glorious semi-slow-motion. You have no choice to stay, and you can’t help them (e.g. you can shoot as many guys as you want, but the result will be identical) as they stand their ground, get shot to shit, and hold onto every last ounce of strength as they lay down enough fire for the bird to clear the mine before it collapses.
It’s motherfucking heroic – especially if you suffered through that shit on Veteran – as the Delta guys refuse the evac and cover the helo as it leaves, to the protest of Captain Price, who begrudgingly admires the Yanks. Realistic? Rescuing the Russian President and his daughter inside a Siberian diamond mine while brave Delta operators ensure it can get out safely? Not at all.
And the plot and heroics of Act of Valor? Not really.
But both are damn fun.