Real Seals on the silver screen

They're the stealthy elite squad who killed Bin Laden, but now a team of real US Navy Seals have stepped out of the shadows to star in a movie

It sounds like just one more testosterone-fuelled war epic with a storyline of patriotism and courage designed to make a grateful Pentagon beam. But don't look for Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig on the promotional posters because in Act of Valor, which opens in the US on Friday, the actors playing soldiers won't be actors at all.

However the film is received by the critics – acting skills will not get top mention – Act of Valor will be remembered for shredding a decades-old understanding about the making of war movies: that while directors are rarely averse to getting into bed with the US military there has always been at least a small bolster between them, for decency.

Made for $12 million by first-time directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, the film follows a derring-do mission by a band of Navy Seals involving the rescue of a CIA agent from a Central American drugs gang that in turn exposes a terror plot against the United States hatched by a group of radical Jihad Chechens. The story-telling mixes documentary with fiction but entirely real are the main protagonists. They are all active-service Navy Seals.

Hollywood does, of course, have a long history of making films examining the dark side of war going back even to the 1930 epic All Quiet on the Western Front, a tale of German conscripts in the trenches, Dr Strangelove, M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now, which respectively offered contrarian takes on the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict. But more venerable has been its history of chest-pumpers championing the military.

In the modern era none is better known than Top Gun with Mr Cruise and the whole toy box of fighter planes and aircraft carriers. It imparted excitement and glamour to a career in the armed services. Likewise Black Hawk Down, the 2001 Ridley Scott recreation of a 1992 Marine mission in Mogadishu that in real life ended in the loss of 18 American lives. In the hands of Hollywood it was a parable of individual courage. "Nobody asks to be a hero," the main character, played by Josh Hartnett, intones. "Sometimes it just turns out that way."

One legacy of films like Top Gun are the breathless recruitment spots, all clattering helicopters and night-vision goggles, sponsored by the Pentagon that often run in US cinemas before the main feature. But wherever Act of Valor is to be screened, there will be no need; it is a recruitment vehicle in itself and a blatant one.

That much is obvious just from the story of how it came about. Messrs McCoy and Waugh originally responded to a call from the US Navy to make a recruitment spot. Given open access to Navy Seal training exercises over two years, they saw an opportunity to make a full-length film. Then came their other epiphany: the Seals were so compelling it made sense to have them play themselves. "It became an obsession to tell the story in an authentic way. We thought the only way to do it was with the real guys," McCoy says on the film's web site. The lucky post-production break: the assassination of Osama bin Laden that put the Seals back in the national spotlight.

What is also unusual is how the film dodged the Pentagon's radar. The Navy signed off on the idea, but the script was never submitted to the office at the Defence Department that exists solely to assist Hollywood and, if possible, to make sure they contain nothing that might damage national security. Now it is coming out, there is nothing the Pentagon can do about Act of Valor. "Clearly we wish it had gone through the normal channels," said Vince Ogilvie, deputy director for entertainment media. Putting on its best face, the Pentagon is saying it likes the film. "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," Admiral William McRaven, the head of Special Operations Command, said at a defence industry conference in Washington.

But not everyone is convinced that Seals, often called the 'quiet professionals', should be strutting across cinema screens. "It's one thing to be filmed parachuting out of a plane, but it's another thing to be parachuting and land on the red carpet," one defence official commented to French news agency, AFP.

In the meantime there is the health of American cinema-goers to consider who, if they watch the film, will be exposing themselves to some high-grade military propaganda. But perhaps that will be nothing so terribly new.

Hollywood heroes: Seals on screen

Charlie Sheen

The writers of Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun (1986) were given privileged access to, and guidance from, the US Navy's aviation wing. But when the 1990 film Navy Seals, starring Charlie Sheen, attempted to put their secrets on screen, the Navy was far less obliging. "The Navy made it very clear that it would much rather see no movie made about the Navy Seals," the movie's publicist, David Linck, said at the time.

Steven Seagal

"The hero, martial arts star Steven Seagal, is so steely and robust, he looks like he could kill with his eyebrows," reads the LA Times review of Seagal's performance in Under Siege, the 1992 action-thriller that shot him to fame in a blaze of violence and ludicrous one-liners. Seagal, right, plays Navy Seal turned ship's cook Casey Ryback, who fights terrorists trying to seize control of a US battleship. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995) imaginatively staged the action on a train.

Demi Moore

The plot of Ridley Scott's 1997 film GI Jane follows the story of Lt Jordan O'Neill (played by Demi Moore), the first woman to be given the chance to endure the punishing Navy Seal training, and face down discrimination from those who believe she is sure to fail.

Vin Diesel

In kids' film The Pacifier (2005), Diesel plays Navy Seal Shane Wolfe, who is assigned to protect five kids from the enemies of their recently deceased government scientist father. Hilarity ensues.

Bruce Willis

Flexing his acting muscle, Willis stars as Navy Seal Lt AK Waters in Tears of the Sun (2003) whose elite squadron is forced to choose between duty and conscience on a mission in Nigeria.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before