The marketing behind Act of Valor, the new box office champ (earning $24.7 million its opening weekend), is the story of a film with an unprecedented amount of cooperation between the U.S. armed forces and filmmakers. "Starring active duty Navy Seals" screams the tagline of the film.
But while the involvement of Navy Seals in starring roles of the film does represent a new boundary in the history of military involvement in Hollywood, the cooperation is by no means much a stretch. It's no secret that the US military frequently works with Hollywood in a mutually beneficial relationship of propaganda and resource access. Act of Valor is just the latest example of a comfy friendship.
A large number of the reviews of Act of Valor made a point to mention the film as military "propaganda." Indeed, the background of the film was a perfect storm of circumstances.
In the wake of Seal Team Six killing Osama Bin laden in Pakistan, a mission that led to a craze over all things Seals, Disney filed, and then dropped, a trademark application for the term "Seal Team Six." As luck would have it, just weeks after the Seal's historic mission, filming wrapped Act of Valor. A San Francisco Chronicle report last June noted just how closely the Navy worked with filmmakers:
"Showing real SEAL life without revealing too much was the big trick. No one wanted to hand a playbook to the Taliban or al Qaeda. The Navy's solution was a rigorous review, scrubbing out any classified or sensitive actions or view of weapons that might tip off an enemy. Sometimes, out-of-date procedures were substituted."
The group selected to shoot Act of Valor had worked with the Navy before, having shot this recruitment infomercial about the Navy's Seal-supporting Special Warfare Combatant-Craft SWCC (pronounced "swick"):
Not surprisingly, SWCC plays several feature roles in Act of Valor, with some of the scenes looking like shot-for-shot copies of those from the recruitment video. In fact, as The SF Chronicle noted, "The movie directors selected shots for their script, while the Navy will keep raw footage to use for training and other purposes."
The two directors responsible for Act of Valor also seem of the view that Act of Valor is more of a Department of Defense project than a Hollywood one. In a Washington Times interview, director Mike McCoy bashed Hollywood, saying, “The Vietnam legacy has been this fog that wouldn’t lift for 40 years. And no one had the balls in Hollywood to go the other way, to say, ‘Let’s really look at the world and the men and women serving right now.’ That’s 40 years ago. Why are we still using the same ideology, this anti-military ideology?
Of course, that kind of statement is a self-promotional load of bull. Hollywood's positive relationship with the military has never been stronger.
Almost one year ago exactly, the #1 film in the nation was Battle: Los Angeles. That move was a gung ho tale of a small number of US Marines, outnumbered, batting their way out from a Los Angeles under attack by superiorly-armed aliens. On the surface, Battle: Los Angeles hardly seems like an ideal recruiting film for the military. But in fact the Marines were heavily involved, right down to script approval.
As we pointed out at the time, Battle: Los Angeles had much in common with Retreat Hell!, a 1952 film about Marines in the Korean War. Both films even relied heavily on filming at real-life Marine base, Camp Pendleton:
Battle: Los Angeles's plot even mirrors the plotline of the 1952 film. Both begin with Marine operations against an enemy that go horribly wrong, with our Marine Corps heros are forced into a desperate attempt to fall back to safety, only to regroup and make another push. Both films end with the Marines, tired and wounded but sucking it up to head off to another battle. Both films even contain a sub-plot about Marine brothers, one of whom dies.
The result was a very well-received film with a very pro-Marines message. At the time, Twitter lit up with people talking (however seriously) about how Battle: Los Angeles made them want to join the Marines.
In fact, what Act of Valor director McCoy doesn't realize is exactly how Hollywood military propaganda works. Act of Valor may have used active duty Seals in real-world operational situations, but it was a crummy, nearly unwatchable storyline. Even critics supporting of the pro-Seals message have admitted that the plotline threatens to make the whole project nearly unwatchable.
Battle: Los Angeles, and the real story its filmmakers admitted they tried to emulate, Black Hawk Down, focused on authentic action but also on story and character development. And in both cases, the film product functions much more successfully as recruitment propaganda. And let's not forget Warrior, a movie that followed Battle: Los Angeles by six months, and was a Marines recruiting ad wrapped up in a movie.
Many of Act of Valor's camera angles mimic the point of view of a first person shooter video game, so it comes as no surprise that Act of Valor has a deep partnership with the first person shooter video game Battlefield 3. The film's plot is even as simple and uncomplicated as those found in military mission video games.
But the most telling detail that Act of Valor is better video game propaganda than military message is the use of supporting actor Alex Veadov, who plays a Russian terrorism-enabling gangster. Veadov's previous acting credits include the video games Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, Shadow Ops: Red Mercury, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2, Call of Duty: Finest Hour, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising, Shadow Ops: Red Mercury, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, and, of course, SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs.
Not that, outside the Navy, Act of Valor is without conventional marketing tie-ins. A perfect match, the anti-identity theft brand Lifelock sponsored the film's premier.
Visit Brandcameo for more on product placement in Hollywood's #1 movies each week.