How authentic is the new Navy SEAL movie, Act of Valor? Authentic enough to pique the interest of a retired Navy SEAL Captain, who has seen the trailer and expects the film's employment of real-life active-duty SEALs as actors to come with a proper level of accuracy. As someone who understands the reasons and requirement for movies to focus on entertainment over realism, however, he wonders if the authenticity will have a negative effect on the public reception. "It may turn out to be a very good movie," he tells me. "Whether it’s something that the public will think is a good movie, I don’t know. I think the SEALs will like it. It is not going to be a disservice to us. We’re not going to be treated as some sanctioned psycho bunch. We do the hard things and I think that’s how it’s going to come across."
I have seen the movie and think the presumably authentic action sequences are the best part. I tried to get feedback on some of these moments by explaining them to the Captain, and although he needs to see the whole film to be sure, he likes what he hears for the most part. And that is definitely a necessary service to his community, not that they actually care about or need the recognition, because through the years the SEALs have been portrayed pretty poorly and inaccurately on the big screen. And aside from some really terrible-looking direct-to-video titles (the U.S. SEALs series, for instance), he's pretty much seen them all. Below I've listed ten titles rated from worst to best in terms of authenticity, along with his comments on each film.
10. The Finest Hour (1992)
“Way beyond recognition of anything we did,” the Captain says of this little-known movie starring Rob Lowe. He says that one way you could tell it’s bad is that it didn’t get a proper release and was relegated to late-night television, which is where he caught it. Another way is officially documented. While fulfilling a collateral duty as a Hollywood liaison for another project (not a movie), he had a chance to see a formal rejection given to the production of The Finest Hour.
“So I pull out this folder and there was a letter from this production company asking Naval Special Warfare Command to give access to the writers and producers and to do filming on The Strand [the Silver Strand Training Complex]. And the Admiral wrote a very terse letter saying they had reviewed the script and it was not in keeping with the Navy’s core values. So they were not going to support the making of the movie. That’s how bad it was.” But you don’t have to be a real life SEAL to spot the inaccuracies, apparently. “What they did with the midget submarines,” he says, “you don’t even have to know much about SDVs [SEAL Delivery Vehicles] to know this isn’t even close to what people can do.”
9. Navy SEALs (1990)
This action movie involves a rescue mission in the Middle East, and the Captain considers it in direct contrast with The Frogmen (see below). “I’m here to tell you Charlie Sheen would not have made it through training,” he says. “You couldn’t depend on him. He was a loose cannon.” The Captain claims that even if the guy was very physically fit and physically adept that, especially being an officer, he couldn’t have been depended on by his men nor his chain of command. He also has a problem with the “far fetched” part of the plot in which a platoon officer (Michael Biehn) develops his own intelligence in order to track down a terrorist. “He’s not an intel officer, he’s an operator. You don’t run your own intel net, and certainly you don’t do it on your own.”
He does give some credit to a few accurate tactics, however, and cites one scene involving a HALO jump as exemplifying the “skewed camaraderie” the SEALs have. “It’s a locker room type of humor that you find a lot in the teams. You like to keep people on edge a little bit, especially guys who are not as comfortable jumping as diving. If you show a bit of weakness or a preference it’s like swimming with piranhas.”
8. G.I. Jane (1997)
“That was the silliest movie,” the Captain says of this Ridley Scott film about a woman (Demi Moore) training for a special ops group meant to be equated with the Navy SEALs. “I think it was more of a political and social commentary movie than anything else,” he says, calling it a product of the Pat Shroeder era. “That was not a movie about SEALS. It was a movie about women taking their rightful place in any military organization.” He reminds me that it is still against the law for women to become a SEAL and also downplays Moore’s physical achievements on display in the film. “Any human being that can do at least four or five two-arm push ups is capable of doing at least one one-arm push up with a little bit of training. So she was not that buffed out.”
7. Under Siege (1992)
“That was such b.s.,” the Captain says about this Die Hard on a boat-style Steven Seagal flick, criticizing the idea that someone discharged from SEAL duty yet allowed to remain in service as a cook would have access to all the gear and the communications package that he has. “The Navy is not going to let some guy who has been booted from the teams to have this $40-50,000-a-man pack and satellite-encrypted radio,” he says.
“I think he even talked directly to the War Room in the Pentagon. No, that doesn’t fit.” The main issue with the movie, though, is Seagal’s hand-to-hand action style. “That’s a bit far fetched when it comes to SEALs,” the Captain claims. “If they’re close enough to get into a fistfight, you’ve let them get too close already. You need to stop any bad guys’ approach no closer than pistol range.”
6. The Abyss (1989)
Should James Cameron’s effects-centered underwater movie be on this list? Authenticity-wise, no, since it shouldn’t even feature Navy SEALs, according to the Captain. “Why they would send SEALs down there, I have no idea,” he says. “SEALs aren’t trained for exceptionally deep diving. They have no purpose for it. There’s nothing to gain by it.” What branch should have been employed instead? He thinks it ought to have been an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, not only because they’re trained for deep diving but more importantly because the nature of their job is the disposal of explosive munitions.
“That’s who I would send down there to deal with a warhead or bomb or whatever it was,” he adds. “I think that was a Hollywood situation. They had to have some sort of military thing that was kind of hardcore and a bit crazed and somehow associated with water. ‘Well, let’s send in the SEALS!’”
5. Tears of the Sun (2003)
Tactically, this movie is pretty good according to the Captain. In fact, once Bruce Willis and his team are on the move he believes “about 70% of all the tactics were pretty accurate.” But mission-wise he considers the initial plot really far fetched. One reason is the same as his issue with Navy SEALs, that a platoon commander wouldn’t make a unilateral decision to launch into his own mission. “That just isn’t our style,” he says of the premise. “It’s really hard for me to imagine they would turn the helicopter around and do what they did.”
He also “took umbrage” with two other aspects of the film. First he claims the team burned through a lot more ammunition than they would have been carrying, essentially three or four missions worth. “Excuse the term, but they sort of shot themselves in the foot from a realistic standpoint.” The other issue has to do with protocol concerning casualties. “We’ve never left anyone behind,” he says. “Under those circumstances I’m not sure how you’d carry someone who’s been killed, but you certainly don’t leave them behind for the bad guys to exploit the body or for the indigenous folks to do mean things to or for the critters to eat. If you’re going to leave somebody behind you do it in such a way you can come back and find him and bring him home. They didn’t do any of that.”
4. The Rock (1996)
The Captain has very mixed feelings about this Michael Bay movie about a hostage situation on Alcatraz, mainly regarding the shower room slaughter of a SEAL team led (again) by Michael Biehn. “That very well could have been fairly realistic,” he says, “but if I were the platoon commander I might have had only one or two people up there. To bring everybody up into a room where you don’t have the tactical awareness of the perimeter, that’s pretty far fetched. And as a consequence that’s when they all get wasted.”
He tells me that SEALs always go into a mission with the most precise details on target locations, and this being Alcatraz they would have had better information on that particular area. And if not, they should have stalled a bit. “That may be the only way in, but you don’t bring everybody at once. You send a scout up, they go around, then you bring somebody up to watch the scout and the scout goes further out, until finally you say, okay, this is safe enough for us. Then you can bring your troops in and move them out. But to bring everybody up all at once, that was pretty dumb.” When asked if the last of the SEALs (Danny Nucci) should have retreated, the Captain says no, his gung-ho attitude was right. “When your brothers are being chopped up, you run toward the gunfire. That would happen.”
3. The Pacifier (2005)
“That is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen” he says, to my surprise. “I thought I was going to pee my pants.” Okay, while he loves the comedic situation of “this poor macho guy (Vin Diesel) who’s just getting tied into knots by precocious yet very cute children,” he’s admits it’s not a very accurate movie. “He could have been a cop,” he says about the basic premise,” or a Marine.” Let it be understood that a SEAL wouldn’t be left guarding a bunch of kids. “There have been times where SEALs have been part of a security element, but not in the sense of a bodyguard,” he explains.
“We’re just not trained for that. I know of guys who have left the community and gone on to other things and provided security to individual VIPs. But that’s not part of our job, and the skill sets to do that kind of job as effectively as you need to, we’re not trained to do that. You go on to other training venues to learn those skills.” So it does make sense that so many movies feature former SEALS in such occupations. “There are complimentary skill sets that a qualified SEAL has that make a good bodyguard once they’ve been taught bodyguard stuff. Probably better than someone who was taken off the street and trained to be a bodyguard.”
2. The Frogmen (1951)
Technically not a “Navy SEAL movie” because the SEAL teams weren’t established until 1962, this Oscar-nominated movie starring Richard Widmark is about their forerunners, the Underwater Demolition Team, or “frogmen,” during World War II, and at least until Act of Valor has been the best depiction of these characters in the Captain’s opinion. “There wasn’t the gee-golly-whiz-bang things you see in movies today,” he says, regarding its lack of special effects, and that meant they focused on the story and characters rather than being distracted by action spectacle.
“It really caught the spirit of the teams,” he explains. “The thing that sets the teams apart, even today, is the operational camaraderie. You may not like the guy that’s part of your platoon but you’ll lay down your life for him. You work hard, you play hard, you do things that most people wouldn’t even dream of doing let alone attempt it. I think that came through loud and clear.” The Captain also highlights the quick depiction of the frogmen in Saving Private Ryan as a good introduction to a SEAL history lesson.
1. Act of Valor (2012)
While he hasn’t yet seen the whole movie, the Captain does believe that by integrating his guys into the cast that “they’ve created an environment that’s real.” One thing that has already impressed him is a scene in the trailer involving the extraction of a squad: “They brought the boats in!” he told me excitedly. “The way they laid that out, that’s exactly the way I trained my boat crews to support a SEAL squad. So there’s some strong influence by the operators at least in that scene.” He explained that this scene presents an important part of Naval warfare called “the SWCC” (pronounced “swick,” this stands for Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen), which isn’t often seen. “They are pretty special people,” he said. “Maybe they’’ll make a movie about them too.”