Act of Valor is based on an idea that you would never expect to really pan out. Not the fact that it's a movie based on the lives of actual Navy SEALs, of course - that, you could have called five minutes after hearing about how SEAL Team 6 finally took out Osama Bin Laden. They finally rescuscitated their marketability after the damage done to them by the 1990 Charlie Sheen/Michael Biehn movie Navy SEALs. That's right, the Sheen/Biehn team-up that could have also featured Sean Bean... but let's not go off on a tangent here.
The notion that Act of Valor producer/directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh had was that no professional actors could really do justice to the stories they were hearing from active, serving Navy SEALs about what they do and how they do it, so they went about the process of actually enlisting these guys to play all the main parts in their movie.
How many reasons are there for this not to work? Active-duty soldiers whose effectiveness relies heavily on anonymity starring in a movie? Well, their real names will not be revealed at all, leaving the actors playing the bad guys and hostages - like Alex Veadov, Nestor Serrano and Rosalyn Sanchez - to take the cast credits. Active-duty soldiers who should be really busy with, well, being on active duty? Considering this project started as a Navy recruitment video, a cush gig like this was probably some reward for badassery well handled and could probably still be considered a form of service.
Non-actors trying to carry a feature film with a script that's generally devoid of character depth? Well, okay, you've got a point there.
However, the fact that these particular non-actors are the military's hardest hardasses makes for a very effective choice, because they're essentially throwing we doughy critical types against a wall, pressing a rifle butt against our throats and saying "You got something to say, Fat Boy? Some kinda quibble about our ability to portray emotional nuance? Maybe a snarky bon mot about some kind of political agenda you think you detected? We'll be sure to keep those sentiments of yours in mind the next time we save your flabby ass from getting dirty-bombed on the Santa Monica Pier by religious wingnut assholes who want to murder civilians to make a political point! Maybe you can thank your lucky stars we're using a movie to make ours, huh?"
"Gulp! Point taken, good sirs. Fight the good fight, please!"
This movie isn't really about the politics or the characters anyway. It's about the job. That's where the efforts toward realism lie. The selling point is that the tactics the SEALs employ in this film in each given situation - be it rescuing an exposed CIA contact from a torturous hell or striving to stop suicide bombers with tricky new non-metal explosive vests from sneaking into America through secret tunnels beneath the U.S./Mexico border - are the actual tactics they would employ in similar real-life situations. That, combined with the knowledge that the people playing the soldiers in the film are the same actual soldiers who pulled stuff like this off in reality, is what makes Act of Valor compelling.
There's one specific moment that happens fairly early on that lets you know instantly you're going to check in to this film's conceit and appreciate it for what it is. Our squad is stealthily approaching a well-guarded compound where their "extraction package" is being held by jerks and brutally interrogated. They manage to silently make their way across a creek mostly underwater towards a dock where one of the guards is stationed. One of our guys manages to skulk around to the other side, and he just lifts his hands up out of the water. We, the audience, go 'Uh... what's he doing there?' That's when our sniper takes his shot, drops the jerk dead into the soldier's waiting hands, which prevents him from making a splash and alerting the rest of the base to their presence. It's a moment of quiet badassery for which the crowd gave the movie an impressed "Aw-haww!" and I said to myself 'I'm in. They got me. Here we go.'
The more the film shows us cool and fascinating tactics like that, the less we miss actors trying to have Academy Award-nominated emotional breakdowns in the midst of all the action. If you like realistic military-themed video games, you're sure to dig Act of Valor.