- - Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The directors of “Act of Valor,” Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, said they wanted to make the “first authentic action film.” With its cast of active-duty Navy SEALs who fire real weapons while re-enacting real missions, “Valor’s” authenticity was assured.

Less certain were its commercial prospects.

Not anymore. “Valor” successfully assaulted box offices over the weekend, finishing as the top-grossing film in the U.S. with $24.7 million — nearly doubling its $12.5 million production budget in its first three days of release.

Unashamed in its reverence and gratitude for the skills and sacrifices of its band of elite warrior-brothers, “Valor” is selling itself as the “anti-Hollywood” corrective to the ambivalence, contempt and defeatism pervading the American movie industry’s depictions of the U.S. military in the post-9/11 era.

“Valor” is the anti-Hollywood alternative in another important sense: Unlike its commercially challenged mainstream counterparts — conflicted anti-war sermons such as “Lions for Lambs,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “Rendition” — this heartfelt tribute to military heroism with its fierce action has undeniable audience appeal. This contrast in popular appeal is so striking, indeed, that “Valor” invites some larger questions about the cultural marketplace.

With its stunning opening-weekend performance, has “Valor” awakened a sleeping giant — a latent, self-activating Red America movie market capable of supporting the production of new movies imbued with old values? Has the film’s breakthrough confirmed the emergence of an alternative network of Web-based, conservative movie and entertainment sites, one that has now shown that, given a worthy title, it can build the kind of snowballing word of mouth needed to successfully open a movie?

Much of the film’s early buzz came from conservative and military bloggers, who praised the portrayal of the SEALs and their comrades in arms as heroes. Writers at Blackfive, one of the most widely read military blogs, saw a screening of “Valor” last fall and told readers, “This will be one of the best movies you will ever see.”

At Big Hollywood, the conservative entertainment blog owned by digital mini-mogul Andrew Breitbart, the trailer for “Valor” was promoted early and often.

“Since the start of the war on terror, we’ve been told by our entertainment overlords that American audiences are too ‘sophisticated’ and ‘nuanced’ for a straightforward, pro-American, pro-military, action-packed war film,” said John Nolte, editor of Big Hollywood. “We all knew they were lying, and now a film that has come out with no marquee names and sold only on those qualities has proven the lie.”

But movie industry sources — even the rare conservatives — are more hesitant to certify the advent of a rival movie culture. Don’t forget, they say, “Act of Valor” is a good ride, an unusually rousing couple of hours at the pictures. Is its market success really an affirmation of its political values? Or, instead, a confirmation of its entertainment values?

The movie’s strengths — concise storytelling, realistic action, professional execution — inevitably bring to mind the weaknesses of recent conservative cinematic flops. Consider last year’s “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1,” which grossed less than $2 million, despite its adaptation from a source novel with a vast, intensely loyal following that, owing to American economic distress under a liberal Democratic president, was surging at the time of the film’s release. Critics and audiences, including many from the right wing, agreed that “Atlas Shrugged” just wasn’t any good. The movie’s producers have no one to blame but themselves.

“They’re not victims,” said Douglas Urbanski, a film producer for Hollywood hits such as “The Contender” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and an “out of the closet” conservative. What is most important, he said, is that a film is done professionally and done well. Even an irreproachably conservative message can’t save a film with bad acting, poor screenwriting and misguided direction.

Lionel Chetwynd, the screenwriter and director behind movies such as “The Hanoi Hilton” and “Ike: Countdown to D-Day,” said conservative niche movies like “Atlas Shrugged” or the disastrously unfunny “An American Carol” fail for the same reason their liberal counterparts do. “The audience is impervious to embedded political messages,” Mr. Chetwynd said. Above all else, he said, they want to be entertained.

“Valor’s” story is, by design, not explicitly political, focusing instead on the men in combat in a dangerous, post-9/11 world. No time is wasted on clunky, moralizing speeches.

Paul Dergarabedian, the president of Hollywood.com Box Office, allows that the film benefited from the resonance of its “unique perspective” and a good hook, the use of active-duty SEALs, to bring in audiences. But a nation’s support for its warriors doesn’t automatically translate into support for its wars.

“Act of Valor” unites people, Mr. Degarabidian said. “The message was not an overt one. These guys are incredible heroes who put their lives on the line every day for us. That’s a transcendental message.”

Moreover, Mr. Urbanski said, some implicitly conservative messages are deeply encoded within many of Hollywood’s biggest successes of the past decade. Blockbusters such as “Lord of the Rings,” the “Harry Potter” franchise and “The Dark Knight” echo themes of good versus evil and moral duty, reflecting the traditional virtues and stable moral absolutes that conservatives hold dear.

Culturally minded right-wingers looking at “Valor” as an opportunity to wrest more conservative films from a resistant entertainment community may have its lesson backward. “Valor” shows that the real opportunity may lie in wresting more entertaining films from a reluctant conservative community.

“To the filmmakers’ credit, they gave us something easy to market,” Mr. Nolte said. “People were starving for this.”

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