… but with a Chechen-Jewish Drug Smuggler Named Christo
Let me state up front that I don’t think the filmmakers meant anything by the “Christo” character. I do think they stumbled haplessly on a hornet’s nest of anti-Semitic tropes – and thereby hangs a tale that matters.
Act of Valor is a moving, gripping film, all the more so for being enacted by real Navy SEALs. (Full disclosure: this reviewer is a 20-year Navy veteran, and while definitely not a SEAL was privileged to work with some.) The one major flaw I found with the production, per se, was the rather annoying sound track, which could have dispensed with the hackneyed crescendos at suspenseful moments. What the SEALs do needs no audience-cues or embellishment.
And they do incredible things. The movie conveys well the deceptive simplicity of their narrowly-scoped tactical operations. Naval Special Warfare is the unique funnel through which attack submarines, amphibious assault ships, and special-purpose aircraft are brought to bear on strange, one-off combat problems for which they weren’t necessarily designed. The whole Navy – indeed, all the special ops capabilities the United States has – makes up a big bag of tricks for the SEALs to reach into.
Yet when the SEALs are on-scene conducting their operations, doing what no one else can, it all depends on them. Training and expertise are indispensable, naturally. But the on-scene surprises, the multi-vector firefights, the heart-rending collateral damage, the fallen comrades – that’s where the valor comes in.
It doesn’t come in with a trumpet fanfare. The SEALs are effective in the movie because they evince valor so realistically. They are terse, focused, making every yell and profanity count – which is what highly-trained men sound like in combat. Valor isn’t something you emote your way through or sit around thinking about. It’s just what’s left when all the props have fallen away. And it requires a context if it is to matter and be detectable: a life saved, a mission accomplished, a job not given up on, a shipmate not left behind.
That, it turns out, is the poignant weakness at the heart of Act of Valor’s premise. The ambiguous real-world context of the war on terror is the greatest narrative disability of all. The film’s story, with so much gripping tactical realism, seems to be built on a strategic hallucination: that it’s Chechen underworld gangsters who are likely to be masterminding a terrorist insertion into the United States.
Hezbollah is all over Latin America; Hamas is showing up there; Iran’s paramilitary Qods force is reported to be operating out of Venezuela; Hezbollah and Somali Islamists have already sneaked illegally across our border from Mexico; the great majority of drug criminals in Latin America are Latin American – yet the production team for Act of Valor decided to make the villains in the movie Chechens, and make the Chechen drug smuggler a Jew. Why in the name of Jumping Jehoshaphat did they do that?
The Jewish character’s name is Mikhail Troykavitch, but his nom de narcotics in Latin America is “Christo.” This seems a little studied, but perhaps is merely a coincidence. (If you’re not getting it, all Western names containing the syllable “Christ” in any form map back to the name of Jesus Christ. The “Christ” comes from the Greek christos, meaning “anointed.”) I say let’s assume nothing about a Jewish criminal naming himself “Christ” and move on.
Other reviewers have pointed out Christo’s rather cartoonish hooked nose and eyeglasses, so we need not belabor that. I was struck forcibly, however, by a disclosure early on about Christo’s Chechen associate, Shabal – the terrorist who blows up children while assassinating the US ambassador in the Philippines, and then plots to put suicide bombers with high-tech explosive vests in cities in the United States. Shabal, we are told, was connected with the 2004 massacre of schoolchildren in Beslan, in southern Russia.
The insertion of a Jewish character into this mix begins to rise to a remarkable level of haplessness with the Beslan tie-in. Perhaps the filmmakers were unaware that there is a well-worn theme among some factions in Russian politics of Jewish complicity in the Beslan massacre. (A relatively printable fulmination represented at a Pravda forum here; more colorful ones can be found in Russian.) The baseless allegation is periodically inflamed by reports that alternately suggest Israel is sympathetic to the plight of Chechnya, and in league with the hated, Russian-approved government there.
The flames are fanned further, however, by 9/11 Truthers who believe a Russian Jew, Boris Berezovsky, was connected with the 9/11 attacks. The same Berezovsky, who had business interests in Chechnya in the 1990s, is also quoted all over the net by the conspiracy-minded as boasting that he “caused the war in Chechnya.” Those of fevered imagination can’t decide whether the Jews are abetting Chechen terrorism or allying themselves with Moscow, but in any case, you can’t make a criminal a Chechen Jew and give him an underworld buddy who blows up kids and had a hand in the Beslan massacre, and not open up a big, sweaty bottle of single-malt anti-Semitism.
“But, good grief,” you might say. “Can’t anybody ever make a Jew a bad guy? What, screenwriters are supposed to look under every rock for exotic anti-Semitic tropes they might be inadvertently evoking? Seriously, we have to be that careful?”
And the proper response, the pointed, relevant response is: Why shouldn’t we have to? Look at Act of Valor itself. About whom were the screenwriters at least that careful? Consider the interview on Christo’s yacht, in which the SEAL senior chief is interrogating the drug smuggler. Note what the senior chief says out loud, and what he doesn’t. He barks at Christo, “But you’re a Jew!” – by which he is suggesting that it’s odd for Christo to be in league with a terrorist like Shabal, whose goals are presumably hostile to Jews.
Then the senior chief asks Christo, “You know what he is?” Well, we all assume we know what Shabal is, having seen him in a video near the beginning of the movie, calling on Allah while waving an automatic weapon. But the SEAL doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say “Muslim radical,” he doesn’t say “Islamic terrorist,” he doesn’t say “Islamist” – he doesn’t fill in the blank at all. The question hangs there, answered in every viewer’s mind but not on the screen.
In the real world, meanwhile, the transnational terrorists who keep popping up far abroad, especially in the Western hemisphere, are Arabs, Pakistanis, and Somalis. But Act of Valor gives us Chechens and Filipinos. (There is a brief interlude at an airfield in Somalia, but no Somalis in the terror gang we follow in the story.)
This political correctness wouldn’t be as noticeable if the filmmakers did not seem to have taken the long way around the barn to shoehorn a Jew into the story. The contrast can’t help standing out, and it is right to point it out. It would be wrong to accept it without cavil.
It is almost as if the filmmakers were consciously determined not to appear to give a Jewish character kid-glove treatment – as if to say: “Fears about negative depictions of Jews are outdated and overblown. Jews are just like anyone else; we can make some of them villains. The evils of the past don’t mean we have to whitewash the present.”
But, of course, the world hasn’t changed that much. If it had, we could make Lebanese-Arab Hezbollah Muslims or Yemeni-Arab Islamist jihadists into our main screen villains for a movie, without self-consciousness. The truth is that this world is pretty much as it has ever been, and a political recognition of that – an unspoken one would be fine – is what is missing from Act of Valor, because it is missing from America’s official, public dialogue on the war on terror. The breathtaking nature of the SEALs and what they do makes the movie a thrilling ride. But the story comes off as thin, not because the SEALs’ missions don’t matter, but because there is no strategic-level narrative, no “Why We Fight,” tying them together.
Our enemies in World War II were basically living caricatures, armed with tanks and aircraft carriers. Writing a narrative in which they were the enemy wasn’t difficult. It was harder to write our narrative in the Cold War, but even then it was easier than it is today to define what the problem was, and how to bring the nation-state to bear in solving it.
Today’s war is a war without a narrative: a war in which there is only an endless series of “battles,” which we cannot afford to lose but which don’t bring us any closer to winning. We don’t have an actionable concept of what winning would look like, and we certainly have no strategy to get there.
In a sense, the SEALs are the perfect force to follow in a movie about a war like this one. A number of reviewers have complained about the shallowness of the plot; some even consider it to be laughable, no more than a cheap device to get a particular SEAL team from one operation to the next. But the joke is on them, because that is pretty much how a war looks from the perspective of a SEAL team. One of the most realistic aspects of the movie is precisely the narrow immediacy of the pretexts for moving the SEALs around.
SEALs don’t run extended joint-force campaigns, they don’t take and hold territory, and they don’t hand the president enduring, decisive political victories. For those activities – the kind that form a coherent narrative – you must, to paraphrase T.R. Fehrenbach, put your young men in the mud and give them enduring, decisive political objectives. But that is not the war on terror as it has been waged for the last four years. Act of Valor has a plot like a police-procedural TV show because that’s what the war on terror has become.
The war was losing strategic steam by the end of the Bush presidency, and has settled into a tactical police-action posture under Obama. The throw-away “Chechen-Jewish-drug-smuggler” character has about it the whiff of a Law & Order episode; it comes off as a quasi-random composite, of the kind writers can just make up when the narrative is as open-ended as the face of human crime.
Wars against well-defined enemies preclude such literary license, which is quite clear if we imagine writing a story like this about World War II. The Nazis were Germans; there was no getting around it. Today, we have worked hard not to define an enemy; we have no enduring, decisive political objective; and we have no positive strategy. So we end up with as much literary license as we can handle, and no end in sight to the conflict.
Seen in that light, it is perhaps even more remarkable that Act of Valor is so compelling. I admit to not even registering the thespian inadequacies of the SEALs, because – as many readers can probably also say – they looked real to my eyes. The actors in G.I. Jane looked like actors playing SEALs; the SEALs in Act of Valor are authentic.
I saw one review in which the writer supposed that the SEALs “don’t really talk that way,” but I’m not sure what he meant: the SEALs talked as military men talk. SEALs tend to be very intelligent, well-read, and understated, with a somewhat mordant sense of humor and a natural, unforced patriotism and warrior’s honor. That came through in the movie. To ask for something else is to miss the point.
When one of the SEALs is killed after throwing himself on a grenade, the scene is depicted accurately, without gratuitous gore, and the other SEALs react, but continue their mission. At his funeral, the team’s wounded SEALs make a powerful visual, gathered around the casket, but equally powerful is the quiet dignity and courage of the assembled family members. The SEALs would have it no other way.
Critical reviewers have denigrated the voice-over by the SEAL chief (NCO, E-7) whose narration frames the movie. They suggest that the narration and its content – which is focused on the heritage passed between generations of fighting men – are simplistic or hackneyed. It didn’t strike me that way. The SEAL’s voice, with its Midwestern accent and unpracticed cadence, sounded familiar and authentic to me. It sounded like the voice of a sailor.
Tethering the story to the SEALs’ family lives cements the film’s message. The silly, tortured ambiguities of politics and the war on terror are mostly offstage. The reality that grounds these men is captured in the face of the SEAL lieutenant’s baby boy in the final seconds of the movie. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard: in a war without a narrative, there is still valor.
We sleep soundly in our beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf. (Attributed by George Orwell to Winston Churchill)