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Act of Valor: Propaganda for the US Navy in the Form of an Action Film
Don’t let the packaging fool you, Act of Valor is a recruitment video and a propaganda piece for the US Navy; not the benign slice of entertainment it makes itself out to be. For one, the film’s cast is made up of a mix of actors and real life Navy SEALs and while it makes for a cool gimmick – real life action heroes and all that – it just makes the propaganda feel that much more potent. On the whole the actors are pretty decent however they lack comfort in front of the camera. Their lines are kind of stilted, not enough to ruin the film but enough to prevent you from connecting with the characters.
The film deals heavily in clichés, the biggest of which being its choice of villains. It ingeniously lumps together America’s two biggest threats historically - Russians and Islamic ‘Jihadists’- giving us two bad guys; a Russian drug dealer name Christo (Veadov), who isn’t above murdering children; and Shabal (Cottle), his childhood friend who converted to Islam and promptly became an Al Qaida type of terrorist. And just to balance out the scales, the lead is also a complete cliché. He’s a goodhearted Caucasian, with a pregnant wife, whose idea of having a good time is hanging out on the beach surfing with his Navy SEAL buddies and their families.
The film milks his situation for all it’s worth; focusing on the fact that he’s protecting his country despite the danger involved and despite the fact that he may never see his unborn child. It’s a noble sentiment but not when it’s forced down your throat and not when it’s in such a biased context. The film is so out of touch with reality that during an interrogation scene, the US commander promises Christo that if he doesn’t cooperate, he’d be locked up but not harmed physically. His only punishment would supposedly be missing out on his wife and daughter’s lives. While we weren’t expecting the film to portray the evils of the American military system, a little nuance of the truth would’ve been nice.
On the bright side, the film has some pretty decent action scenes which make up most of the story. The film’s basic setup revolves around retrieving a kidnapped CIA agent who uncovered the link between Christo and Shabal. Once they get her back, they discover that the duo are smuggling a gang of suicide bombers into the US, wearing high tech explosive vests that can pass through metal detectors without setting off the alarm. Their mission evolves into finding and preventing the gang from entering the US and setting off a national hysteria reminiscent of 9/11. While there’s a ton of the usual gunfights and stakeouts, if the film’s portrayal of the Navy SEALs’ activities is anything to go by, skydiving is apparently an integral part of their lives and it honestly looks pretty sweet. The action sequences are full of close ups and over the shoulder shots designed to make it feel more real and, for the most part, it succeeds.
Despite the decent action sequences, it’s impossible to ignore or overlook the film’s politics. In this era of the ‘War on Terror’ you just can’t get away with things that are blatantly untrue. It’s quite unsettling; the film rewrites history and glorifies war to a completely unacceptable degree.
Held together by a couple of strong performances, Peter Sattler’s directorial debut, Camp X-Ray, explores the story of an unlikely friendship between a female Guantanamo Bay security officer and a long-suffering Arab detainee.
Private Cole (Stewart) is a young woman from a small town in Florida, who – shortly after the atrocities of 9/11 – enlists in the military and is eventually deployed to Cuba to serve as a security guard at Guantanamo Bay.
Enveloped in her own securities in a harsh, male-dominated world, Cole buckles down and begins her daily routine of walking the restrictive cell-block halls. It’s doesn’t take long before she attracts the attention of Ali (Moaadi), however; a well-spoken Arab detainee who has been locked up for the past eight years. Recognising a chink in the armour of her tough facade, Ali baits Cole for some much-needed attention. Though she initially tries keeps her distance, an improbable, though inevitably strained, relationship develops.
Shot with a sense of pining, Camp X-Ray has a small-movie feel that, despite its sometimes shallow approach and lapses into stereotyping, has a big message. Grounded and engaging, the story very much focuses on the dynamics and the growing connection between two very different, but similarly lost, souls whose hopes and dreams are very different from their existence. Its politically-charged premise is never abused and the script, unlike other war-on-terrorism productions, never spoon-feeds its political overtones to the audience; in fact, it leaves it to them to decide and determine the nature of everyone involved.
For a character-driven piece, Stewart’s trademark cold demeanour is actually well suited for her role, while Moaadi – best known for his turn in Iranian Oscar-winning drama, A Separation – is superb as the tormented detainee, managing to convey a variety of emotions with one seemingly haunted look.
Despite its occasional – and predictable – forays into clichéd territories, Camp X-Ray commendably refrains from using its controversial setting as a plot device, instead using it as a backdrop, letting the characters develop in a much more organic and human way – which the actors execute impeccably.
Peter Jackson’s fourteen-year-long Middle-Earth adventure has finally come to a close with the third and final instalment Bilgo Baggins’ journey with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies; a slightly bloated, but generally successful, finale that boasts plenty of action and technical superiority over its immediate predecessors.
Hitting the ground running and wasting no time in plunging audiences in the deep-end, The Battle of the Five Armies begins exactly where the second film left off, with Smaug (once again voiced superbly by Cumberbatch) setting Lake-town ablaze as Bilbo (Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) and his army of loyal dwarf-followers watch from the Lonely Mountain.
After escaping imprisonment, Bard (Evans) slays Smaug, leaving the endless treasures of the mountain unguarded for Bilbo, Thorin and co. to continue their quest. But as news spreads of Smaug's demise, the lure of the mountain's coveted riches triggers an inevitable path to war.
A With a running time of just over two hours, The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest of all of The Hobbit entries, though it’s also the most ambitious and visually-creative of the lot. The cinematography is exquisite and the CGI techniques seem to have been pushed to their very limit.
The cast is, as always, steadfast and dependable with Armitage delivering a blockbuster performance as Thorin, though Freeman’s usual whimsical nature and superb comic timing is, surprisingly, underused. Similarly, the rest of the cast, including Lilly as the she-elf, Evans, as the newly-emerged leader of Lake-town, and McKellen take a back-seat.
With this being the finale, it plays out like a climax and is heavy on the action and not much else – as a standalone film, it may feel a little hollow for some, but for fans, it's a fittingly spectacular conclusion to the series.