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'Act of Valor' must balance publicity, secrecy with Navy SEALs

The movie stars real, active-duty Navy SEALs, a normally clandestine group. Making and marketing it has been a mission not everyone approves of.

February 12, 2012|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • A Navy SEAL is engaged in a personnel recovery mission in the movie "Act of Valor."
A Navy SEAL is engaged in a personnel recovery mission in the movie "Act… (IATM LLC, Relativity Media )

They're among the most elite and mystery-shrouded members of the U.S. military, part of a traditionally anonymous group of alpha males known as the "quiet professionals" for their daring, clandestine missions like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But the secret world of the U.S. Navy SEALs is about to open up in dramatic fashion — in an unusual, independently financed action movie called "Act of Valor."

In a moment of unprecedented public exposure, several active-duty SEALs play the lead parts in the film, which opens Feb. 24. Though their names don't appear in the credits — listed instead are the names of Naval Special Warfare forces killed since Sept. 11 — the SEALs' faces are clearly visible onscreen and in marketing materials for the combat thriller. It's not only the SEALs' images but their often fearless tactics that "Act of Valor" reveals, in electrifying action sequences filmed during training exercises with live weapons fire.

The casting of real SEALs creates a layer of intrigue and authenticity about "Act of Valor" for audiences, but the movie raises questions of propriety for some in the military community — the SEALs have been uncomfortably in the limelight since one of their teams conducted last May's Bin Laden raid, and the hunt for the terrorist leader is the focus of yet another Hollywood movie, one that has become the subject of a Pentagon investigation about whether its director and screenwriter, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, had improper access to classified material.

Just how much America's secret warriors should open themselves to the world is a complex issue. "The quiet professional means, 'Do your job. Keep your mouth shut,'" said Ken Robinson, a terrorism and national security analyst and former special forces soldier who produced a 2005 NBC military drama with Jerry Bruckheimer called "E-Ring." "A movie is a sword that cuts both ways. It shines a light on very brave, capable Americans. On the other hand, any time you crack open a door and give someone an insight into who you are, you give them an advantage. For some people, you draw the line at zero. Other people say, 'Someone else is gonna tell our story badly, why don't we tell people what we do?'"

"Act of Valor" is a hybrid of fiction and documentary-style storytelling — the film tracks an eight-man SEAL squad that undertakes a fabricated mission to recover a captured CIA operative and discovers a plot to sneak suicide bombers into the U.S. across the Mexican border. In addition to its cast — led by a couple of especially telegenic warriors named Chief Dave and Lt. Rorke (their real first names) — the movie features live grenades, free-falling parachuters, high-speed boats, helicopters, an aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine. It's a level of production that would make blockbuster filmmakers such as Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer drool, obtained by two first-time feature directors and former stuntmen, Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh, for roughly $12 million.

The story of the small project, first conceived as a training film, then later embraced by the Navy and given a huge unexpected boost by the Bin Laden raid, is a dramatic yarn in its own right. Because it was begun as a recruitment video, the movie proceeded outside the normal Department of Defense channels for working with Hollywood, in which production companies submit a script for the department's approval in order to gain access to personnel or materials.

How the military initially understood the project — as a documentary, a fictional film, a recruitment video — is unclear. "That's like 'Rashomon,'" said one DOD official who works regularly with Hollywood and was not authorized to speak publicly about the project. "Ask a different person, get a different story."

Officially, "Act of Valor" "did not follow the normal DOD approval process for major motion pictures," according to Rear Adm. Dennis J. Moynihan, the Navy's chief of information. But the Navy has publicly embraced the film, which was overseen by the Naval Special Warfare unit, and determined that it poses no threats to the security of the U.S. or its stars, some of whom are now deployed overseas.

"We think it accurately represents a number of the acts of valor that have occurred over the last 10 years with respect to the SEAL teams," said Adm. William McRaven, the head of Special Operations Command and a SEAL himself, answering a question at an industry conference in Washington, D.C., last week. . "We're conscious of the fact that there are active-duty Navy SEALs here. I can tell you they all volunteered. There's no concern on their part about their individual or the security of their families.... The film company that produced this had a very collaborative effort with the Navy and with U.S. Special Operations Command. So nothing displayed in there tips our sensitive tactics, techniques and procedures."

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