About Me

My photo
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Act of Valor, Hollywood and The Pentagon

Watching Act of Valor, the recent film in which active duty US Navy SEALs portray themselves in a Hollywood war movie gave me some very mixed feelings.

For one thing, the casting of real life warriors in a war movie further blurs the already heavily blurred line between escapism and war in Hollywood movies. Let's face it, every Hollywood war movie from Rambo to Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates has some kind of an agenda behind it. Entertainment and escapism are usually only half of the picture when it comes to Hollywood's military themed movies.

Hollywood, especially in recent years, is often categorized as a left leaning, liberal industry that predominately pushes a "radical" leftist viewpoint. When it comes to Hollywood and the military, though, that assessment of the American film industry comes off as, well, ill informed at best.

On Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, in and amongst the production companies, talent agencies, entertainment lawyers and other ancillary show biz industries, there is a building that houses the entertainment liaison branch of the Office of Public Affairs of the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. The function of these offices is to help provide "U.S. military assistance in producing feature motion pictures, television shows, documentaries, music videos, commercial advertisements, CD-ROM games, and other audiovisual programs...".

Act of Valor represents what some might categorize as the ultimate culmination of  said "U.S. military assistance". It is also part of a long standing symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon, sometimes referred to as the "Military Entertainment Complex".

The US Department of Defense has been offering help and assistance to Hollywood in the making of war and other military themed movies at least as far back as the 1915 feature film The Battle Cry of Peace:  A Call to Arms against War. This very early silent film tells the story of how foreign powers manipulate the pacifist movement in the US in order to leave American unprepared for a (fictional) invasion of New York and Washington. The movie featured actual US troops along with real generals and even an appearance by the current Secretary of War (as the title was known then) at the time. It doesn't take a great deal of political analysis to understand why the military might want to support such a movie.

Wings, a 1927 movie about World War I fighter aces that was the first film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, also received US military assistance. This assistance was especially useful when it came to recreating aerial battle scenes. These scenes featured real planes shot from wing mounted cameras. To this day, it is considered some the greatest biplane dogfight footage ever shot.

Yep, the Hollywood Pentagon relationship is a pretty simple formula, really. Want to get shots of tanks, planes and an army of thousands in your movie? Don't want to incur a massive production and/or special effects budget? 

Simple. Get Pentagon cooperation. They'll let you use their personnel and equipment for next to nothing.

The catch? The Pentagon gets script approval. 

That's right, you want their hardware, they get to tell you what can and can not go into your movie. 

As you might guess, The Pentagon usually has got a quite specific agenda of their own. And that will be most certainly represented in their script notes. The history of The Pentagon's involvement with Hollywood has impacted many military themed and war movies in significant ways. Many such films have seen changes that intrinsically alter their meaning and substance. 

WWII veteran and celebrated American novelist James Jones wrote an epic length novel in 1951 titled From Here to Eternity.  In the book, Jones tells the story (based largely on his own experiences) of a group of soldiers stationed in Hawaii during the time leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The book is an unflinchingly frank account of military life from Jones' personal perspective. It depicts a system where, for instance, a corrupt Captain is not punished or reprimanded by the Army for his actions. Rather, he ends up getting promoted.

The Pentagon made it clear from the outset that they would not lend their support to any movie based on Jones' book. Unfortunately, making a film adaptation of From Here to Eternity without Pentagon support was cost prohibitive due to the amount of men, equipment and locations required to do justice to Jones' novel. The studio, Columbia Pictures, and the Pentagon were gridlocked on the issue.

Finally, the studio made the move of showing the Pentagon a shooting script before pursuing the issue of assistance any further. The script in question already contained changes to many of the more "undesirable" elements in Jones' novel. The corrupt Captain, for example, does not get promoted but instead is caught and dealt with appropriately. The director of the 1953 film adaption of From Here to Eternity, Fred Zinneman, once said that the scene where the Captain receives his comeuppance from his superior officers is "the worst moment in the film, resembling a recruiting short."

Which brings up another interesting point.

Maintaining a squeaky clean positive image of the military is one part of The Pentagon's agenda in Hollywood movies. It does not stop there, though. Beyond just providing a positive public image for the military, Hollywood movies can also be great recruiting tools. This can be especially true of movies aimed younger audiences, particularly teenage boys.

The 1982 Bill Murray comedy Stripes was, believe it or not, approved of and supported by the US Department of Defense. One of the first things that the Pentagon had changed was to eliminate all drugs and drinking scenes from the script (and there were plenty in the first draft, apparently).  They also had a hand in the "losers become heroes" action comedy sequence that dominates the second half of the film. During that part of Stripes, the character of Sgt Hulka, the career Army Drill Sergeant played by Warren Oates, comes off as a resourceful, heroic and ultimately likable character. The portrayal of the character in the latter part of the movie is a total about face from the unlikable depiction of Sgt Hulka earlier on in which the Sergeant steadfastly plays the role of Murray's uptight authoritarian antagonist.

The film ends with Murray, and his band of supposed military non-conformists, defeating the Russians and being celebrated as heroes, all the while surrounded by a bevy of cute young girls. 

Seriously. Watch Stripes again and look at how pro-Army that movie actually is.

An even more obvious example of the  "Hollywood movie as recruiting poster"  is the 1986 movie that made Tom Cruise a major star, Top Gun. The US Navy gave the filmmakers an unprecedented amount of support and access to their facilitates for the making of the movie. The result is a veritable love letter to aircraft carriers, fighter jets and the cool guys like "Maverick", "Ice Man" and "Viper" that fly them. 

For those of you who may have been in coma  back in 1986, Top Gun was a massive hit, grossing $176 million in the domestic market alone. The success of Top Gun also boosted recruitment in the late 80's. The year after the movie's release, the US military saw an increase in personnel of 20,000 over the previous year. It is a movie that is seen by many as part of a force that gave the image of the military in the US a 180 degree turn around from their much more negative image during the Vietnam era.


The Pentagon has also refused not to support a number of films for very telling reasons.  They turned down a 1963 film called Seven Days in May. The film starred Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster and was directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) from a screenplay by Rod Serling (host and creator of TV's The Twilight Zone). It was about military led coup against the US government.  

The Pentagon also retroactively withdrew support from Clint Eastwood's 1985 war movie, Heartbreak Ridge. It seems that Eastwood refused to cut a scene in which his character shot an unarmed Cuban soldier during the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. Not surprisingly, The Pentagon objected to the depiction of a US Marine committing an act that would be seen as a war crime. They had supported the film during shooting but any onscreen acknowledgement of their cooperation was withdrawn from the movie. The contentious scene did stay in the picture, though.

In the case of two classic Vietnam War movies, Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone with Platoon, both side stepped the Pentagon support issue entirely by shooting in the Philippines. They enlisted the help of that country's military to play the role of the US military whenever major amounts of men and equipment were called for. Though both of those filmmakers also ran into plenty of trouble contending with some highly unstable Filipino politics during filming.

The 1996 alien invasion blockbuster Independence Day is a movie that you'd think the Pentagon would have been all over. However, they objected to the part of the movie where it is revealed that the US military has been secretly experimenting with alien spaceships on a US Air Force base in Nevada known as Area 51 since the 1950's.

More recently, the Pentagon refused to provide support to this summer's Marvel studios blockbuster, The Avengers. They reportedly objected to scenes where Colonel Nick Fury, played Samuel L. Jackson, was seen taking orders from a nebulous international committee.

The Avengers plowed on without the Pentagon's support. One of the advantages of a big CGI budget, I guess. Too bad, though. Imagine if they'd have been able to shoot on a real life SHIELD Hellicarrier.

Not all blockbusters followed the same path as Independence Day and The Avengers. Recent Pentagon supported blockbusters include Battleship, Battle Los Angeles, X Men First Class and all three of the Transformers movies. Transformers director Michael Bay describes himself as "world class ass kisser" when it comes to his attitude toward this kind of support.

Even more recently, Act of Valor has taken the Hollywood Pentagon partnership to a whole new level. 

Back in 2007, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh were making a training film for the United States Navy's Sea, Air, and Land teams, or as they are better known, SEALs. The project eventually led to the idea of making a feature film about the SEALs with members of that elite commando team serving as advisers. In addition, of course, the film makers would also have the full cooperation of the US Navy.  As the planning of the film progressed, it was felt that only the SEALs could effectively duplicate their tactics on screen. The idea of casting actual active duty SEALs to play themselves was born.

While Act of Valor was not directly funded by the US Navy or the Department of Defense, the movie is still very much their baby. To cinch that point, the US Navy had final cut approval of the film.

In the movie business, BTW, that's huge.

Getting final cut of a movie is usually an honour reserved for the likes of studio heads and big money making Hollywood auteurs like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.

More than anything else, Act of Valor was viewed as a potentially very effective recruiting tool.  It seems that nobody in the Pentagon had forgotten about Top Gun. As far as the Pentagon in Hollywood is concerned, box office numbers are not nearly as important as recruiting numbers.

The resulting film is an odd mixture of a old school Hollywood war movie tropes, standard contemporary action movie explosions and chase scenes, impressive cinematography and some of the the most audacious "stunt" casting in Hollywood history.

Many of the reviews I have seen of Act of Valor focus on the performances of real life SEALs (whose real names never appear on screen).  Many of the critics state that the SEALs are not actors and that, unfortunately, it really shows on screen. Some critics even go so far as to say that the nonprofessional performances distract from the film's ability to entertain. Other reviews from online commentators counteract these arguments stating that the acting is not what's important about the movie or make the case that no one was expecting the SEALs to be great actors anyway or even point out that they've seen worse performances by "so-called professional actors" in other movies ( I, for one, would love to know what movies they are referring to).

See? It's all fake.
The implication of both arguments is that there isn't really anything any one can do when there are nonprofessionals with no acting training or experience in the lead roles. The underlying assumption is that it is simply a given that there is no way they could have been able to pull off convincing performances. 

On that point, I totally disagree.

Act of Valor is not the first movie in history of cinema to use nonprofessional or inexperienced actors.  Victorio de Sica's 1948 Italian Neo-Realist classic, The Bicycle Thieves, featured some incredibly real performances by non-actors. When George A. Romero created the modern day zombie movie with The Night of the Living Dead in 1968, much of his cast was nonprofessional. If anything, that casting worked for the film and not against it. British faux documentary director Peter Watkins has gotten some stunning results from nonprofessionals in films like The Battle of Culloden (1964), The War Game (1968) and Punishment Park (1970). In the hit indie film, Once, director John Carney got memorable performances out of two professional musicians with little or no acting training or background in the lead roles .  Closer to the war movie genre, World War II veteran and inexperienced actor Harold Russell won an Oscar for his portrayal of a disabled war hero in William Wyler's 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives. Stanley Kubrick worked wonders with former US Marine Corps Drill Sergeant R. Lee Ermey (and other less experienced actors) in his Vietnam War movie, Full Metal Jacket (1986).

If the SEALs performances in Act of Valor didn't work then, really, the responsibility for that failure falls on directors McCoy and Waugh. There are many techniques you can use to get good performances out of non-actors. McCoy and Waugh, however, seemed to have instead decided to direct the SEAL's as if they were experienced actors. The SEALs seem to have been given artificial bits of physical business, fake smiles, forced scenes that supposedly depict a sense of camaraderie, and it also seems like they may have received that dreaded direction for all actors everywhere, line readings (that's when the director tells you exactly how to say any given line of dialogue). These guys are not able to pull off any of those things. The dialogue they are given even contains a few typical action movie one-liners. Dude, seasoned actors have trouble with that shit, what were you expecting?

Directors McCoy and Waugh
Getting something real and natural out the SEALs should not have been that much of a stretch. They are playing themselves doing something that live every day.  I mean, c'mon, it's not like they were cast as 57 year old Hindu women. 

Fortunately, The SEALs do have some very real moments, though they are few and far between. When they are in the field on a mission, relaying orders and information to each other in the midst of battle, their calm matter of fact delivery is stunningly real. Act of Valor could have benefited from more of that kind of thing.

There is one scene, in which a SEAL interrogates a captured bad guy, that has incredible life to it. Much of the scene appears to be improvised. I suspect that actor Alex Veadov, (one of a few professional actors in supporting roles, in this case playing the bad guy) has some improvisational training in his background. He and the real life SEAL interrogator provide what is easily the best acted scene in the film. Let actors improvise (professional or otherwise) in a situation where they don't necessarily know what's coming next and eventually real stuff will start happening.

However, directors McCoy and Waugh may well have been on a tight schedule and budget and thus were not allowed the luxury of exploring scenes through improvisation. Or, as first time feature film directors with primarily documentary films on their resumes, they may simply have been too inexperienced in the craft of directing actors. Or perhaps the Navy wanted those kinds of performances, for whatever reason that may have suited their agenda. I've certainly been in enough commercials to know that, as the Mad Men guys like to say, "The client is always right, even when they're wrong." It is probably yet another example of how the Pentagon's influence on Hollywood has once again impacted the content of one more movie.

As an action movie, Act of Valor is okay. The action and the story are well executed. The combat scenes, due perhaps to their verisimilitude, stand out from your more typical fare.  However, Act of Valor is neither just an action movie nor typical fare. In fact, the movie is not nearly as escapist in nature as it attempts to appear to be.

As a recruiting film, going after the target audience of teenage boys approaching enlistment age, Act of Valor is, well, outstanding. As if to cement the goal of reaching their intended audience, some combat scenes are shot from the SEALs' POV, which unmistakably intimates the look of the Call of Duty video games and just about every other first person shooter game out there.

The SEALs at one point launch a rescue mission to retrieve a captured CIA operative (and apparently capturing a CIA agent in the field takes little more than impersonating the guy from room service, but I digress). The agent in question is a woman. While she is depicted as tough and capable, she is still very much portrayed as the vulnerable female captured by crazed and evil men. To hammer the point home, the evil men both symbolically rape and crucify their captor. The SEALs arrive almost literally in the nick of time. It's all standard patriarchal rescue scenario stuff, to be sure.

The SEALs are seen mounting military operations with some extremely heavy duty equipment in the Philippines, Somalia and Mexico. There does not appear to be even a second thought given to the fact that are launching military incursions into foreign countries without any apparent permission or even knowledge of their activities on the part of said countries.

Honestly, at times, Act of Valor fells like Team America minus the puppets and the jokes. Though it is foolish to dismiss this movie so flippantly. One thing I can tell you from my personal experience with the World War  II veterans in my family is that I remember that they always held great disdain for Hollywood's romanticism of war. The cast may be real warriors using real tactics and equipment but Act of Valor is not real war any more that it is merely Hollywood escapism.

As far as I'm concerned the issue of Act of Valor is not whether or not you love it or hate it or whether or you agree or disagree with its ideology. Bigger even then how the viewer feels about it is that the viewer understands what the movie is. Just being able to ask the question of why Act of Valor was made is more important than the answer. Knowledge is power.

Don't kid yourself; no matter what the motivation behind it, there is no truth to the phrase "it's just a movie".