Psychological operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator's objectives. Also called PSYOP. -- Department of Defense Joint Publication 1-02
In January, the United States Navy celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Sea-Air-Land commandos -- the now legendary SEALs. A month later, Act of Valor hit 3000 movie theaters across the country. It earned more than $24 million in its first weekend, blasting it to the top of box-office charts.
On the surface, AOV appears to be familiar merchandise, a big (though lowish-budget), dumb action flick marinated in testosterone and an American-might-is-right ethos. Everything in that description fits, except the "dumb" part.
After a sorry attempt to introduce and humanize the main characters, all SEALs -- they cannot act, and so become indistinguishable from one another -- AOV gets down to its cinematic business: serving up hot and riveting combat spectacle. Helmet cams send us into freefall with the special operators on a high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) parachute jump. We then glide up a Costa Rican river with coolheaded Naval Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCCs from here on out) in heavily armed boats to extract a SEAL element that's taking withering bad-guy fire after rescuing a kidnapped CIA agent.
The boat's GAU 17/M134D Gatling gun whirs like a monstrous mechanical bumblebee as it spits out 3000+ rounds a minute from its six barrels. The rounds perforate the thin steel sides of the thugs' vehicles with pitter-patter pings. A pickup truck becomes a colander with wheels. (Presumably the rounds make a different sound when hitting people, but there's too much noise in the sound mix to hear that, if it's there at all.)
The action feels real because it is real -- or at least kind of real. Active-duty SEALs and SWCCs play the lead roles and conduct these jaw-dropping operations -- that's AOV's sole, yet boffo selling point. The ops are all the more convincing because the SEALs planned and executed them as actual training exercises. Live-fire exercises. (In real life, SEALs refer to themselves as "quiet professionals." The Navy admits that the men who appear in AOV had to be compelled to step into the limelight by their commanders.)
Action filmmakers often collaborate with the Pentagon to get their hands on weapons of war -- not just guns, but tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. To keep their precious privileges, directors carve out bits of dialogue and plot the military finds objectionable, off-message, or just plain despicable, even if they're true. A scene in World War II movie Windtalkers where a U.S. marine wrenches gold teeth from the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier? Cut. There is a very long list of such films: Top Gun, Clear and Present Danger, Independence Day, G.I. Jane, and so on. (See David L. Robb's book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.)
Sometimes these relationships sour, particularly if the screenplay heads in a direction military policymakers don't like and stays there. That happened with The Hurt Locker. (Films that are critical from the jump and stay that way such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now get no military love and must scrounge up hardware in places equipped by the U.S. like Thailand and the Philippines.)
AOV blows way past any sort of traditional military-civilian partnership. In fact, it harkens back to World War II when Frank Capra directed the Why We Fight series of propaganda films for the War Department, movies like Prelude to War and The Nazis Strike as well as the remarkably progressive The Negro Soldier. (Watch it online!) Unlike the civilian filmmakers who give us AOV, however, Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh, Capra was a U.S. Army officer. It was his duty to create propaganda to serve the war effort.
AOV may be making money hand over fist -- $58 million in the U.S. as of March 14 -- but it is much, much more than a commercial product. It is the fruit of long-term naval strategy, brilliant operational planning, and flawless tactical employment.
Together with the Navy's information office, Naval Special Warfare Command created the concept for AOV. The public affairs folks at NSW describe the genesis of the movie with martial clarity. "With an urgent requirement for more SEALs, NSW decided to take an innovative approach to its recruiting efforts," reads an article in Ethos, NSW Command's unclassified magazine. "One of those innovations was to grant access to a filmmaker who could credibly provide a compelling and accurate window into the Teams."
NSW solicited proposals from three production companies to make AOV and settled on Bandito Brothers, the company run by McCoy and Waugh, which makes extreme sports videos. (Collider.com has a good interview with the filmmakers, who tell us, among other things, that the film was completed before SEAL Team 6 paid a nighttime visit to Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and killed him.)
"It was initially started as a recruiting film, so that we could help recruit minorities into teams," Admiral Bill McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said a few weeks ago. This explains why the SEAL element we see on screen is so uncommonly brown and black. The actual SEAL force -- and all U.S. special ops components -- is overwhelmingly white.
NSW reviewed all the 1700 hours of footage for operational security reasons -- high-ranking navy commanders have struggled to reassure critics within the military community that no classified special forces tactics, techniques, or procedures are revealed in the movie. They also stress that no taxpayer money was spent on AOV.
There's more: NSW secured from the directors an agreement "to provide NSW with the entire catalogue of raw footage to repurpose for the Navy's own use following the release of the movie," according to the Ethos article. Not bad for zero money down.
AOV might not be a gripping tale, but it's damn sure a ripping ride. I marveled at the technical complexity of the combat sequences -- 15 cameras for one scene! I nodded in recognition as the "actors" delivered their lines like well-meaning robots because I've heard earnest young lieutenant-types deliver their talking points in the same dutiful tone. And after one scene, I cried. For real.
But I also hung my head in disbelief as the chaotic plot unloaded, and I cringed at the awful stereotypes. Kurt Johnstad, AOV's screenwriter -- and the guy who gave the world 300, a bloody romp set in ancient Persia -- manages to squeeze in a phalanx of walking clichés. We get a psychotic Muslim terrorist, a nearly amoral Ukrainian Jewish smuggler (he's the film's only multidimensional character), and scheming Mexican narcos. Since diversity seems to be the order of the day, Johnstad could have thrown in a Simon Mann-like Brit mercenary. Or a venal non-Jewish arms dealer -- Viktor Bout, a Russian now awaiting sentencing in a New York City prison for conspiring to kill American citizens and officials, comes to mind. Or perhaps a corrupt U.S. congressman based on the real-life Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was convicted of taking bribes from not one, not two, but three defense contractors. And to be fair, I can't leave out my African brothers: Johnstad could also have crammed in a demented and homicidal Ugandan warlord like Joseph Kony.
The problem with AOV runs deeper than its many layers of lameness and naval provenance. While the physical terrain the SEALs navigate and dominate in AOV is visually rich, the figurative terrain of the film is flat, dull, empty. There are no political, legal, humanitarian, or ethical dilemmas. There's no sense of history, place, culture, nothing to give the film any resonance or cohesion, just fiery displays of tactical excellence and depictions of individual heroism. This is not an accident.
More than just a shiny digital fishing lure cast in front of enlistment-age boys, AOV functions as both justification for and promotion of a dangerous policy, the frequent dispatching of clandestine warriors to do the dirty, secret, and often extralegal work of the administration. This very old practice was updated and popularized by Dick Cheney (and George Bush) and has been dramatically expanded by President Barack Obama.
Examined in this light, the movie's flaws become virtues. Troublesome moral, political, historical crap is cleared away, leaving nothing that would allow the viewer to generate just a little empathy for anyone other than the American heroes -- say, perhaps, a civilian trapped in the crossfire or on the despoiled battlefield. Without such vital, real-world context, the SEALs become superhuman cartoon warriors, "our nation's avenging angels," as Vice President Joe Biden called all special ops forces in 2011. This is dangerous hagiography. Guardians protect democracy. Avengers, especially ones for whom the administration claims divine sanction, imperil it.
Roughly 60,000 U.S. Special Forces personnel operate in 80-odd countries -- these are the ones revealed publicly -- on a $10 billion budget. "Special forces assist teams" are now working in five South Asian countries -- Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India -- the head of U.S. Pacific Command announced a few days ago. That's on top of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Who knew? This item made the news in the UK and South Asia -- a friend in Bangladesh sent me a link -- but not here.
Now would be a perfect time for us to consider how successive American presidents, particularly the current one, use our secret troops as global policemen -- and extralegal assassins. AOV is anything but a catalyst for such a discussion. It's a giant ideological pillow that both comforts Americans and smothers our critical thinking. It's a U.S.-first children's story -- explosive, cathartic, and reassuring -- executive produced by naval commanders. The message: Why think? The avenging angels will take care of us.
And now we come to the crying...
-- Spoiler Alert --
In the movie's penultimate scene, Lieutenant Rorke, a stalwart and courageous SEAL who is barely distinguishable from the film's other stalwart and courageous main character, leaps onto a grenade tossed at his team by one of the Mexican drug henchmen. Rorke is blown off the floor to waist height. A pool of blood flows from beneath him and spreads slowly across the floor. Cut to an extreme close-up of his open eyes. His lids droop, and then open again, this time dead and staring. At his funeral, team members honor the LT; his equally stalwart wife suffers silently. This is when I teared up.
My first day in Iraq in 2004, I watched a marine bleed out, just as the fictional lieutenant did. I knew other marines who were later killed in action. I count wounded marines among my friends. Perhaps this is why the scene hit me so hard. But my personal history aside, this sequence is by far the movie's most nuanced and moving. It works unlike anything else in AOV aside from the bang-bang.
What I would call a skillful penetration of my intellectual defenses and a straight-up manipulation of my emotions, Navy brass would call a successful PSYOP. This is precisely why Act of Valor is so frightening.