With its flawless hardware and surgical ops, Act of Valor is a bright, shining lie, an Xbox Green Berets for the New American Reich.
In 2011, Scott Waugh and Mike 'Mouse' McCoy decided to make a war movie. It would not follow the classic three-act structure which provides audiences with a familiar route-map to the filmmaker's desired emotional destination.
Instead, their film would look to videogames for inspiration, using a set-up/execution/outcome/repeat structure that keeps the action flowing without ever having to deepen plot or extend character.
Furthermore, there would be no actors in the key good guy roles. The Navy SEALs around whom the action revolves as they take on the alliance of drug dealers, communists and jihadis who are laying America to waste are played by serving soldiers, men who have really put their lives on the line and would continue to do so long after the cameras have stopped rolling.
The film they eventually made, Act of Valor, stands out from more conventional modern war movies in another way. It is a film that rejects the nuanced, if inevitably partisan, Hollywood take on the war on terror and embraces middle America's inability to deal with political complexity.
It is a cinematic statement of global Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism. It’s as shameless and manipulative as anything Josef Goebbels created for his country. It also topped the US box office in its opening weekend.
Act of Valor is astounding by anyone's standards, but not in a good way. Sure, the action sequences – and there are many – are shot with the kind of verve and energy you would expect when written by the scribe behind bombastic man scuffle, 300, and directed by two former stuntmen. The sound design is so realistic it will have audiences ducking at the buzz and ping of ear-grazing bullets.
But what really sets the movie apart, in filmmaking terms, is the financial cooperation between the film’s producers and the Pentagon, a symbiotic relationship that exchanges military hardware for access to audiences. Much has been made of the shoestring budget with which Waugh and McCoy produced their opus, but factor in the US Navy's willingness to provide locations in the form of aircraft carriers, submarines and C-130 planes and it's clear the film wouldn't have been made at all without this special relationship.
What's far more interesting about Valor than the military-movie industrial complex is its position at the forefront of a new generation of films – hinted at in the work of Zack Snyder – that plunder the plot structure, design and moral neutrality of an entirely different art form: videogames.
In the 1990s, Sony's PlayStation brought to the western world's living rooms the kind of gaming that had been the preserve of arcades, with high-end graphics, stereo soundtracks and lots and lots of levels. As the capacity of consoles increased exponentially, games became ever-more sophisticated and began to feature scripted movie-like cutscenes that drove increasingly elaborate plots and sketched out background narratives.
A favourite of broadsheet culture pages is the story of how games are becoming more like films, with the prospect each would be indistinguishable from the other. The idea reached its apex in 2011, with the release of L.A. Noire, a 1950s-set private dick adventure starring Mad Men's Aaron Staton.
During the same period, a group of Washington politicians established the Project for the New American Century, a right-wing thinktank that saw US victory in the Cold War as a springboard to global political and cultural domination.
It pushed for the US government "to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles." It was a manifesto that moved from the conservative fringes to become the nucleus of George W Bush's foreign policy, and still informs much Pentagon thinking today.
In Act of Valor the two seemingly disparate but incredibly influential twenty-first century cultural strands come together to powerful effect. As the movie's SEALs grease the bad guys in any number of impoverished sovereign countries, we see the energy and simplicity of digital culture co-opted by an aging conservative Washington clique.
With its flawless hardware and surgical ops, Act of Valor is a bright, shining lie, an Xbox Green Berets for the New American Reich that astonishes not with its display of military technology or groundbreaking cinematic style but with its stunning dearth of awareness.
There's a phrase British squaddies often use about their American allies while on joint operations: "All the kit, don’t know shit." If Valor's producers are ever in need of a new poster tagline, they need look no further…
SEAL Team Six seemed like an exciting bunch of guys. Seven must one better, right?
Visceral action, limp dialogue. But there isn't that much dialogue.
Operates on more levels than Call of Combat IV: Jihadi Headshot, all of them despair-inducing.