War movies are a familiar genre in Hollywood. For decades, writers and directors have drawn on the action and gripping emotion to recreate historic conflicts dating from the earliest centuries of civilization to the present day. But Act of Valor represents a significant milestone in the evolution of the military movie; never before has a film so authentically portrayed the intricacies of military action.
Act of Valor debuted in theaters across America on February 24, 2012, and went on to gross over $81 million worldwide. Directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh—both former stuntmen with experience producing high-speed sports documentaries—the film offers a realistic glimpse into the lives of eight Navy SEAL operatives engaged in the global war on terror. Although their story begins with a mission to rescue an undercover CIA agent in the Philippines, they soon uncover vital information revealing a wider terrorist plot. In order to thwart violent plans that threaten thousands of innocent American lives, the SEALs of the Bandito Platoon must engage in an international race against time to find and stop those responsible.
Produced by Relativity and Bandito Brothers, a production company headed by McCoy and Waugh, Act of Valor provides an in-depth look at the covert operations of one of America’s most effective special operations units. But it is not only the film’s direction and subject matter that lend it unprecedented realism—its authenticity is also the result of close collaboration with the United States Navy.
A Unique Partnership
Although it didn’t yet have a cast, crew, or script, the production of Act of Valor dates back to 2006. That was the year that the Quadrennial Defense Review, the assessment of military goals and operations conducted by the US Department of Defense (DoD) every four years, indicated a pressing need for enhanced special forces. In response to global military conflict and economic uncertainty, the DoD had begun to streamline its operations, relying more heavily on special forces, intelligence, and cyberspace capabilities. That year, the Quadrennial Defense Review called for 500 more Navy SEALs.
The Navy mounted multiple initiatives to help attract promising new recruits, one of which was a feature-length film project. A formal request calling for film proposals was issued, and eventually the Navy chose former stuntmen and action cinematography experts Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh.
While Act of Valor certainly wasn’t the first collaboration between Hollywood and the military—box office hits from Top Gun (1986) to Behind Enemy Lines (2001) have upped their realism with DoD support—it was the first to feature such dedicated involvement. Typically, a film studio will propose a project to the military, make changes to the script as requested, and then pay for these services on a contract basis. In contrast, Act of Valor involved a much deeper collaboration.
Not Your Average Actors
Although Act of Valor’s directors initially planned to fill the movie’s leading roles with actors, they were so inspired by the service members they met while conducting research for the film that they decided to forego this plan. Instead, they cast active duty Navy SEALs. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, director Mike McCoy explained, “These were some of the most amazing men we’d ever met. They were so different from the Hollywood, popular culture stereotype.” Inspired by the humble and genuine nature of these real-life Navy SEALs, the directors vowed to share their stories with the American public. This dedication to accuracy and authenticity was a major selling point in convincing the eight SEALs to step in front of the camera.
For security purposes, the SEALs are not identified by their full names. Even so, they are essentially playing themselves in the movie, and had license to change the script when they felt that their lines were out of character. In addition to the eight SEALs, Act of Valor also stars actors Roselyn Sanchez, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, and Nestor Serrano.
As Real as It Gets
The Act of Valor production crew was granted unprecedented access to the Navy’s training exercises, and the team took great care to ensure that their footage did not reveal any classified information. The crew shot the entire movie during planned Navy SEAL training outings, merely enhancing the production value with the addition of multiple camera angles or props. For example, for a scene depicting a yacht takedown, the crew filmed an amphibious exercise that would typically target a tugboat or other training vessel. However, the production team provided a rented yacht as the target, allowing the SEAL team to carry out a more realistic operation.
The privilege of filming actual SEAL training exercises heavily limited Act of Valor’s filming schedule. In one instance, the crew was forced to shoot a sequence that would normally take three weeks in just six days. Principal photography for the entire project took over two years and produced 1,800 hours of footage, all of which was reviewed by the Navy’s Special Warfare Command to ensure that it would not compromise national security.
Using real training sites also granted the production team a variety of remote and realistic filming locations, including Puerto Rico, Cambodia, and Mexico. It also meant using realistic equipment; the majority of the action sequences in Act of Valor depict live ammunition. For this reason, the entire crew wore body armor, and although the SEALs did all of their own stunts, no one was injured during the production.
While in the early stages of development, Act of Valor’s directors spoke to several Navy SEALs over a six-month period. From their personal stories, McCoy and Waugh selected five acts of valor around which to center their film. They then sought out writer Kurt Johnstad, well-known for writing Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), to help weave these true stories of heroism into a cohesive fictional narrative. As many of the scenes in Act of Valor draw on real SEALs, missions, and occurrences, the movie not only provides a realistic portrayal of both the personal and professional lives of Navy SEALs, but also honors the sacrifices made by many of America’s uniformed heroes.