“Damn Few”

Each year brings a new crop of action films, often with over-the-top violence and story lines that jumped the shark while they were still being written.  This past year, though, one of the best action stories wasn’t on movie screens, it was on the TV news – Osama bin Laden being killed by Navy SEALs.  Now, in one of those serendipitous moments of timing, in the movie theaters is a story revolving around this elite unit, starring active duty SEALs.

Two independent movie makers, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh (who work under the name the Bandito Brothers), set out to make a realistic story about Navy SEALs.  (SEAL is an acronym for Sea, Air and Land; they are elite troops organized into small units designed to fight in any environment.)  The movie makers began by interviewing the soldiers, and from those interviews they garnered five actual events that they could string together into a narrative.  But while doing the interviews, they realized that the only way to tell the story truthfully was to use the real SEALs as the team in the movie.

The story sweeps around the world.  In Indonesia, the American ambassador is killed, along with a number of children, in a bomb attack at his son’s school.  In Central America, a CIA agent named Lisa Morales (Roselyn Sanchez) is undercover, watching a drug smuggler named Christo (Alex Veadov).  The CIA has picked up information tying Christo to the terrorist behind the Ambassador’s assassination, Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle), and to smuggling weapons.  But before she can get too far, her handler (Nestor Serrano) is killed and she’s kidnapped and tortured.

SEAL Team 7, under the command of Lieutenant Dave, is given the mission of rescuing Morales.  (The active duty soldiers are only identified by their first names, though captions also give their number of tours of duty and the medals they’ve earned.)  In a wonderfully tense and choreographed sequence, they enter the compound where she’s being held, silently dispatching several guards along the way, and rescue Morales.  Then they must race through the jungle, pursued by the smuggler’s forces, to reach a river extraction site.  In the course of the rescue, the team captures one of Christo’s cell phones.  Through data mined from it, Naval Intelligence discovers Abu Shabal has set in motion a terrorist attack that will be even more crippling than 9/11.

During filming, the directors conferred with the SEALs, giving them the situation and having them map out their plan of attack.  All of the action in the movie has that realism and uses real equipment, from aircraft carriers and submarines down to model-airplane-size drones.  The directors also used helmet cameras to give you a “down the gun sight” view of some of the action.   Different from any other fictional movie, this film also includes live fire.  It’s incredible to see what a minigun can actually do to a pickup truck.

What helps make the movie is the naturalness of the SEALs when they’re on camera.  During down-time scenes, such as a beach party before their deployment, the soldiers blend beautifully with the actors playing their friends and families.  The movie actually took two years to make, because some of the SEALs would go on deployment for a while.  When they came back, the filmmakers would shoot the next scenes.

This is the first movie filmed using a Canon 5D Mark II digital camera.  It’s the size of an old 35mm camera, but it can film 21 megapixel digital video.  If the kids who once filmed with their parents’ 8mm cameras years ago (people with names like Spielberg and Abrams) were starting today, they could begin with equipment comparable to high-end Panavision cameras, without the need for spotlights to light the scene.  Regular light is enough.

This film is not high art, but for what it is – an action movie – it is thrilling to watch.  With Special Ops becoming more the focus of the military, this movie is also an effective recruitment video.  Though, as the SEALs acknowledge when they toast their comrades, they are the “damn few.”

The movie includes the reading of a piece composed by the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh.  It is a fitting requiem for warriors of any time:

 When your time comes to die, be not like those

whose hearts are filled with fear of death,

so that when their time comes they weep and pray

for a little more time to live their lives over again

in a different way.

Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.

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