But the surprising, if not unprecedented, use of so many active-duty military personnel, as well as the filmmakers’ embedded access to training missions and material (including a nuclear submarine) have put “Act of Valor” in the crosshairs of critics who question whether the movie crosses the line between entertainment and propaganda, and whether the military should be in the movie business at all. The relationship between the Pentagon and Hollywood has raised eyebrows before, even prompting an occasional congressional investigation.
That relationship — sometimes cozy, sometimes contentious — has existed from the days of silent cinema, when the 1927 movie “Wings” received assistance in staging aerial dogfights, through 1986, when the Navy set up recruitment booths in theaters showing “Top Gun,” until last summer, when the Army ran an ad campaign to coincide with the release of “X-Men: First Class.” (For its part, “Act of Valor” was heavily promoted during this year’s Super Bowl.) Every service branch of the armed forces has its own film office, staffed by active-duty officers, whose job is to work with Hollywood, review scripts and provide support in terms of military hardware, advice and, sometimes, people.
“The Pentagon has what Hollywood wants, which is ships and planes and helicopters and personnel,” says author David L. Robb, who in “Operation Hollywood” chronicled the connections between the Pentagon and the movie industry. “And Hollywood has what the Pentagon wants, which is eyeballs. It’s product placement.”
“Act of Valor” began germinating more than four years ago, when stuntmen-turned-documentary-makers Scott Waugh and Mike “Mouse” McCoy made a seven-minute film about the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen, whose responsibilities include inserting and extracting Navy SEALs, the elite operations force responsible for killing Osama bin Laden and rescuing two aid workers in Somalia last month.
By the time Waugh and McCoy finished their documentary, the Navy had embarked on its own feature-film mission, inviting proposals for projects that would depict the SEALs in a more realistic — and favorable — light than in such bombastic fiction features as “Navy Seals” (starring Charlie Sheen) and “G.I. Jane” (starring Demi Moore).