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Reality Bites: Tim Grierson on “Act of Valor” and the problem with authenticity


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For an industry that makes its money selling make-believe, Hollywood sure gets hung up on authenticity from time to time. Whether it’s the stars of “Saving Private Ryan” going through a modified boot camp to prepare for their roles or the producers of “Moneyball” casting real baseball scouts to appear alongside Brad Pitt’s GM character, studios will occasionally trumpet the lengths they go to make their movies as believable as possible. (Or, in the case of the found-footage genre, the lengths they’ll go to make a fictional horror film look like a documentary.)

The latest film to make a virtue of its realism is the action movie “Act of Valor,” which features actual Navy SEALs in the main roles. And while that decision has some benefits, I couldn’t help but keep thinking one thing while watching “Act of Valor”: Do people really care how authentic movies are?

As you may have heard, “Act of Valor” started out as a Navy recruitment video from commercial directors Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh before morphing into a feature film about a team of SEALs who have to stop a terrorist plot within the U.S. The directors, who got permission to use official military hardware like submarines and helicopters, decided they had to have SEALs and not actors as their protagonists. As Waugh explained to the Los Angeles Times, “My analogy to them was, ‘Take “Top Gun,” pull Maverick out, and put in the real Maverick.’” If all that’s not enough authenticity for you, they also used real ammo during the fight scenes, and there’s no CGI in the movie.

When you’re making an historical drama, it’s understandable that you’d want the events you’re depicting to be as close to what really happened as possible. (Although as last year’s Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech” demonstrates, you can fudge a fact or two and most people won’t mind.) But with action flicks, does it matter? Lots of producers think so: Many movies cooperate with the Department of Defense to gain access to military equipment or information. But with “Act of Valor,” the filmmakers wanted to go a step further by showing what the lives of the clandestine SEALs are really like. But even then there’s some secrecy: The two main characters, Chief Dave and Lt. Rorke, are played by SEALs named Dave and Rorke, although their full names are never revealed. (Their real-life wives and kids are also in the film.)

Incorporating actual soldiers and their families is a decent way to drive home these heroes’ reality. (We see them as they say goodbye to their loved ones, who know nothing about where they’re going, other than it’ll be someplace incredibly dangerous.) Nonetheless, “Act of Valor” can’t help but suffer because, well, these guys are Navy SEALs. They’re not actors — that’s not their job. Consequently, when it comes to making us care about them as people in the context of a piece of entertainment, it never quite works because they don’t have the dramatic faculties for it. As has been noted in a few reviews, the weird irony of “Act of Valor” is that because actors play the bad guys — casting real-life terrorists might have been a little difficult — they’re a lot more compelling than the good guys. It’s the downside to that need for authenticity: Fiction films are, ultimately, about pretend, which requires skills that go beyond being the actual person that you’re playing. (Plus, no matter how convincing the producers want things to be, some artificiality is inevitable — unless all the baddies we see shot in the head by SEAL snipers really were killed, of course.)

That said, there are advantages to the filmmakers’ quest to keep things real. While I hope it doesn’t inspire would-be Spielbergs in the audience to film their action scenes with live ammo, a couple firefights in “Act of Valor” have a spark to them simply because of the fact that you’re seeing what genuine gunfire looks like in a battle. And because of their training, the film’s Navy SEALs have a brutal, steely efficiency in the action sequences that’s less showy than what you normally see in war movies. You get the idea that these guys don’t mess around and that they’re total pros — even if no one’s told them that if they really want to be movie stars, they ought to come up with witty lines whenever they kill the bad guys.

But in the end, those moments of realism don’t add a lot to what makes people supposedly want to see movies in the first place. “Act of Valor” doesn’t have great characters, and its story is a pretty dull globetrotting race against time. So why did the film do so well commercially this past weekend, easily surpassing insiders’ box office predictions?

The answer may lie in the trailers I saw before “Act of Valor.” In trailer after trailer — whether it was for “John Carter” or “The Raven” or “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” — I was struck by how effects-heavy and, honestly, fake they all seemed. They could all be great films, but with our current obsession for CGI, we’re inundated with action movies in which everything is possible but not much looks real. “Act of Valor” is a forgettable film, but its success this weekend is a reminder that there’s always an audience craving something that feels a little truer. We all love the escapism of movies, but sometimes the illusion of authenticity can seem pretty appealing as well.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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