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.

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