I went to see this recently (and dragged a couple of people along too). It’s not quite hilariously bad. In fact it’s impressive how little outright hilarity there is in its cheesiness. Instead it’s interestingly bad, or disquietingly bad.
The introduction mentions ‘authentic’ or ‘authenticity’ at least three times. It’s not, of course, except to a certain idea of literalism and straightforward belief in the righteousness and rectitude of everything you do. This is a world where terrorism is literally a man blowing up an ice cream van in a school-yard full of children. Where violence is horrific and total, but just off-screen enough not to cause visceral discomfort or presumably to give what is widely described a Navy SEALS recruitment film an adults-only rating, and yet where language is never worse than ‘assholes’ (liberally applied, but only to terrorists).
As a war film this shows certain aspects of military hardware to good effect. Less so than Transformers, but one gets to see the sharp end of American force applied, in a rather surgical way. But unlike the fantasy genre of desperate fighting against inhuman odds (from Independence Day to War of the Worlds and Transformers, and onwards to the godawful-looking Battleship) here, and in any documentary account of modern wars, there is the awkward sense of unavoidable technological might. Awkward not because America’s modern super-soldiers are invulnerable - IEDs took care of that idea, and a single shot can still kill - but because they are faced with a mass of human (however ideologically culpable, terrorists - or ‘assholes’ - are still human) vulnerability.
This mass of enemies chiefly has power through numbers and persistence - virtues the US military also still needs to maintain, albeit in different ways. So the threat is out there - or in this case, soon to come here with a novel development that inexplicably threatens mass panic (and ‘economic disaster’) on a scale worse than 9/11. Ironically, the very existence of the media comes in for some heavy bashing, as an irresponsible, irresistible vector of moral fear. There are values to defend at home - they are painstakingly spelt out - so the SEALs have to go out into the world and kick ass:
"When Bush said that we are fighting the terrorists "there" so that we won’t have to fight them "here", he was making a very distinctively American political move. It is certainly not a rhetorical trope that makes any sense in Europe, for example. Because "there", whether it’s Lebanon, or Gaza, or Baghdad, or Basra, is actually just a short plane ride from the borders of the EU; and what you do there, to "them", has immediate consequences for their fellow Muslims or Arabs or outsiders in Hamburg or the Paris suburbs, in Leicester or Milan." - Tony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century
And what a world it is. Basically, if you live by the coast in the less developed world, expect NAVY Seals to swoop in by nightfall and start shooting. No doubt as part of the ‘authenticity’, armed men in Africa are referred to as ‘skinnies’ - as popularised in Black Hawk Down, the precursor to this kind of ‘real’ action movie, and ‘defined’ by the Urban Dictionary as “militia forces hailing from an impoverished nations… also used in Multiplayer Games, such as Command and Conquer: Generals, to describe the Terrorist teams”.
It’s scary how much the close-quarter fighting resembles modern first-person-shooters. Not just in the gun-sight views as the SEALs move through murky corridors, which is a simple case of life imitating art imitating life in the form of ‘authentic’ art, but in the copious amounts of headshots (again, seen through the gunsight, flat and dimensionless) and the interjections of the female communications soldier - “mission not complete”, said in exactly the tone of a computer game.
In short, what it so scary about this film is how unreal it is, in any kind of liberal, civilised world, on the one hand, and on the other how apparently ‘authentic’ it is to the shadow world of glorified violence, necessary death, and power as beauty:
“Perhaps the fascists were last to believe that power was beautiful.
That power was beautiful, yes. Communists of course believed to the end that power is good: invocations of power, properly surrounded by the right doctrinal packaging, could still be presented without apology. But the unapologetic presentation of power as beauty? Yes, that was uniquely fascist. But I wonder whether you are correct for the non-European world. Think of China, after all, the most obvious case in point.”
Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, ibid., p. 165-6
It’s a tough world out there, no doubt. But I wonder do we celebrate acts of value - humanitarian, political, even philosophical, the stuff that democracy is actually made of - enough, rather than valour which, while important, is meaningless without context; and the context here is, baldly, a world where American military action contributes to the danger of, and motivation for, terrorism. There’s a value in this film in that it shows the terrifying normality of militarism as a modern-day fascist ideology, dressed up as a defence of democracy.