Young boys dream about exciting jobs every day in sandboxes — becoming an astronaut journeying into space or a fireman heroically racing into a blaze.
Most of us set aside such adventurous pursuits for less dangerous occupations. But one boy realized his childhood dream: He became the G.I. Joe he wanted to be when he grew up.
That’s because he became a United States Navy SEAL — forging a lifelong bond and brotherhood in an elite echelon of American military service.
SEALs are special-operations soldiers who are physically, mentally and culturally trained for the toughest tactical missions at sea, in the air and on land. Their tactics are steeped in selectivity (with only 1,600 handpicked operators in active duty, or a tenth of a percent of America’s entire military force) as well as secrecy. So sacred is protecting SEAL identities that this article’s interview subject requested that his name not be used.
However, that veil of anonymity and silent professionalism for which Navy SEALs are known will be pulled back a bit by the release of “Act of Valor.”
Act of Valor is hardly the first time Hollywood has depicted Navy SEALs in theaters — The Rock, Black Hawk Down or 1990’s pointedly titled Navy SEALs, which cast, of all people, Charlie Sheen as one of America’s finest.
But it is the first time actual active-duty Navy SEALs have appeared in a film — revealing their faces and tactics, but not their actual names, to provide a differentiating point of authenticity.
Reportedly financed by undisclosed individual investors and its two credited directors, Act of Valor is an $18 million hybrid of fact and fiction. Its action sequences and narrative aspects are a composite sketch of real missions, characters and incidents. Its settings are largely training facilities that double as smugglers’ yachts or terrorist camps. Its 1,800 hours of raw footage was subject to editorial review by the Navy.
And its existence has some in the SEAL community — not traditionally one of men seeking glory or recognition for their service — questioning why it was made.
Why would these SEALs jeopardize their careers simply to star in a film? Will this simply be a recruitment effort that sullies the selective skills for which SEALs are trained? Most importantly of all, will it disrespect the SEAL Code of Honor and their Trident, the insignia exclusive to SEAL operators?
I had the opportunity to watch Act of Valor alongside the aforementioned Navy SEAL — who served in Central and South America with a specialty in languages and dialects of countries in those areas.
Below are his insights about the SEAL community’s concerns over the film, whether it avoids the often wildly inaccurate depictions of previous endeavors, and how it reflects the true character of a Navy SEAL.
Spoilers for Act of Valor are contained within.
What were some of the worries you, and those you know in the SEAL community, had about Act of Valor?
A lot of us were worried about Hollywood messing it up again — glorifying SEALs’ actions and losing respect for the Trident. There’s a scene in Navy SEALs where Charlie Sheen’s character jumps from a bridge down to the water. There’s no way a trained SEAL would jeopardize his health just to do something stupid like that. Plus, when you’re a SEAL, your body doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the Navy.
And I would have to think making the film would end the careers of the active SEALs appearing in it. Now that they’re known to the world, it’s hard for them to walk in another country and not be identified as SEALs. It’s not just a distraction. It can jeopardize the team. If someone recognizes them, they’ll be looking for more SEALs. As a SEAL, everything is in service of the mission. And no distractions from home or among the men’s personalities should be allowed to get in the way of that mission.
What were your thoughts after watching the film?
I appreciated the way the filmmakers portrayed the honor, respect and brotherhood that Hollywood, on its own, would never really know how to portray.
In the scene when the SEAL team members are with their families on the beach before deployment, they step away from their spouses and children. Their Senior Chief tells them they have to be prepared and stable when they go out. Whatever problems are at home can’t come with them.
That separation of respect for the family from the brotherhood of the team is very accurate. My wife always knew the mission came first, even above her or our family.
I saw you mimic a toasting gesture during that moment on the beach when the SEAL team makes a toast.
Yes. We always toast for the living and the dead and tip a little bit to the ground.
An inherent argument against war films is the idea of making warfare and death seem exciting. Did you feel the film avoided that pitfall?
Yes. Killing another human being is part of the work, but it’s nothing to brag about. It’s just one of the practices we have to do and people who have really seen action know it’s never something we glorify. There’s nothing to be disrespected about human life. I always think about a quote from David Carradine in the show Kung Fu: “I have a million ways to kill a man, but I don’t have one way to bring him back.”
Based on your active-duty experience, how would you rate the film’s accuracy in terms of SEAL operations?
There were inaccuracies, and I think that’s probably inevitable in any sort of movie. There were some locations and settings that weren’t right and the teams shown performing jumps were actually Navy Frogmen. But the terminology was correct and the tactical procedures were mostly correct.
What was the biggest inaccuracy?
The idea that one SEAL team would track the same target around the world. I know why the filmmakers had to do it, but the same team would not follow a target from Africa to Mexico. Intel would be passed along to whichever team was closest.
Early in the film, there’s a jungle-camp extraction sequence in Costa Rica. The team’s sniper is targeting a watchman on a dock. Just before the sniper shoots, a SEAL submerged in water breaks the surface with his hands — catching the watchman as he falls to avoid a splash that would give away their position. To me, that seemed like an exaggerated Hollywood “wow” moment. Does that actually happen?
It may be how it’s done now. But when I was active-duty, we often had to get much closer than that. So in that situation, a knife would have been used, although it would have been nice to have someone there to do what you see in the movie.
I heard you chuckle a couple of times during an ensuing truck chase where more enemies seemed to appear unbeknownst to the team.
With intelligence, they’d have known precisely how many guards were there. That’s not to say things always go as planned, and a SEAL is trained to adapt. But that was certainly enhanced for effect.
And the guy that got hit in the eye? Mike? Even half-conscious, he’d be up and firing his weapon. The mission always comes first. If he was aware, he’d be firing. Plus, the idea that only one guy in the tailgate of the truck would have been returning fire on the enemies? Everybody would have been firing.
That whole sequence was just a way of Hollywood trying to add action to what would, in real life, be a routine extraction.
Most of the time, a soldier with an injury like the one Mike sustains would never return to active duty. Is that the case for Navy SEALs?
He’d still have one good eye. As long as an operator has the ability to carry himself in combat somehow, he will do so.
There were two moments where you were visibly moved by the film. The first came at the end of the extraction mission. Why was that?
During the Costa Rica mission, the package was not recovered alive as intended. And for all of those damages to occur and have an incomplete mission is not acceptable. But there’s no time to take it personally and there’s no consolation if you mess up. Overall, their mission was not a failure because they picked up intel that proved valuable later on.
That intel eventually leads to an interrogation conducted by the team’s Senior Chief. In film and TV, interrogation is often synonymous with torture, which we don’t see here. Is this depiction accurate?
A SEAL knows interrogation doesn’t mean beating someone to show he’s a badass. There are no electrical wires or pulled fingernails. Intelligence gathered by brute force isn’t really intelligence. It might make for a more gripping scene in a movie, but in the real world, it’s not so effective.
It’s more about emotional identification, and it’s always more effective to discuss the losses that will be felt by a subject’s loved ones, as was done in this film. I loved the portrayal of the Senior Chief — in a coat and tie, not a SEAL uniform. It made him feel human and not like a brute savage you often see in scenes like this.
Let’s talk about the family interaction depicted in the film. Lieutenant Commander Rorke has a pregnant wife back home and calls her from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Would that actually happen while on a mission?
Yes. Because of his status as the Lieutenant Commander and his wife’s pregnancy, he would have been allowed to use a SATCOM phone to call her.
Is it often the case in real life that wives know their husbands aren’t merely enlisted men but SEALs?
I don’t think so. There’s actually a pretty high divorce rate among SEALs. I had an advantage because my wife was also in the military, so she understood the value of why I couldn’t talk about what I did. It helped create a bond for us that has led to a long-lasting marriage.
The other scene that affected you was one in which a SEAL sacrifices his life to save the team. How did you feel as you watched that?
Giving your life if necessary to protect the rest of the team is just what’s expected. And that scene was based on a death in real life. It’s something that affects us all as SEALs. Not long into my tour of active duty, I lost my team. I could relate to that feeling of losing a best friend.
Also, that SEAL’s funeral scene was portrayed very well. Each team honors their own in their own way, and the film respected that.
Given the skepticism that surrounds the film within the SEAL community, how do you feel they will receive it?
I think it will resonate with the SEAL community at large and that they will be pleasantly surprised, as I was, with the respect the film gives to the code of honor.
What do you hope the American public takes away from Act of Valor?
I hope they have an image of the Navy SEAL that is no longer that of the Hollywood John Wayne variety. I hope the image is that he is a human being — a father, a husband, a son and a member of a team that becomes his primary family.