While Hollywood celebrated at its annual Academy Awards ceremony last night, a group of Navy SEALs infiltrated and secured their box office over the weekend.  Act of Valor, a low-budget film with actual Navy SEALs playing their own roles in the action movie, trounced its competition, hauling in nearly $25 million in its opening assault on theaters:

Relativity’s R-rated Act Of Valor has stayed No. 1 all weekend. It’s the the Bandito Brothers’ independently financed low-budget U.S. Navy fighting force tale using actual SEALs from an original screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (300). …

Marketing-wise, Relativity launched an aggressive 400 screening program in over 40 markets as part of a multi-pronged strategy that spoke to gamers, action fans, sports fans, ethnic audiences, country music fans, patriots, military, women, and the faith-based community. It was all about word of mouth then and now: audiences are complying by giving it an ‘A’ CinemaScore.

In comparison, the #2 film was Good Deeds with Tyler Perry, which took in $16 million from over 2100 screens nationwide.  Relativity’s marketing plan for Act of Valor obviously worked, but a great deal of that credit goes to the film itself.  While critics largely panned the film, as its 31% “freshness” rating from critics’ reviews shows at Rotten Tomatoes, it got an audience rating of 85%.  (My review from Saturday morning may explain why.)

Entertainment Weekly has another explanation for its success, especially compared to other movies about the military released in the last few years:

Act of Valor‘s $24.7 million opening marks the best debut for a modern war film (excluding sci-fi titles) since 2005′s Jarhead, which began its run with $27.7 million but fell quickly from there to a $62.7 million finish (Jarhead cost $72 million). Since then, most every military movie has failed to ignite much excitement in theaters. 2007′s The Kingdom grossed $47.6 million against a $70 million budget. 2008′s Stop-Loss found $10.9 million against a $25 million budget. 2009′s The Hurt Locker pulled in $17 million, the lowest total for a Best Picture winner since box office began being tracked in 1978. And 2010′s Green Zone utterly flopped, with $35.1 million against a $100 million budget. What did all those movies have in common? They all dealt heavily with the Middle East, and they were all based on recent, real-life military conflicts. In other words, they offered no escape from the constant coverage of America’s controversial presence in the Middle East, which people already hear about every single day on the news. Act of Valor, meanwhile, served up a fictional international story about anti-terrorism efforts, which may have made it more accessible/desirable to audiences.

Did this fictionality actually make a big difference? There’s no quantifiable way of knowing for sure, but I’d suspect that it helped the film not be seen as a politically-charged drama, which could have proved alienating to some audiences. Still, regardless of why it broke out, one thing is certain: Act of Valor is major box office winner.

I think there is something to that analysis, and I’d go one further by saying that The Hurt Locker was damaged by the perception that Hollywood was antagonistic towards the military, a pattern seen by the other films on that list rather than the reality of The Hurt Locker itself.  That film took care not to take sides (and mostly succeeded) but instead give a glimpse from the point of view of the soldier.  The rest of these films betrayed a deep hostility toward the military and/or the Bush administration, which audiences can get for free simply by turning on MSNBC.  Why go to the box office and pay for the lecture?

However, the supposed “fictionality” of Act of Valor springs from the fact that we don’t hear much about commando missions, not that the missions depicted were works of fiction.  The movie opens with a statement that the scenes are based on actual SEAL missions, and the film deals with radical Islamist terrorists attempting to attack inside the US.  That may be alien to Hollywood films, which have mainly refused to use that reality as a story line in its films, but for the rest of us since 9/11, it’s not “fictionality” at all.  Maybe moviegoes appreciate the honesty of Act of Valor rather than the usual political correctness in Hollywood that insists on avoiding the subject matter this film tackles head-on.

Don’t expect too many Oscars this time next year for Act of Valor, but then again, Navy SEALs don’t need no steenkin’ Oscars anyway.  But from the description by Hank Stuever at the Washington Post, the Oscars could have used some vigor and life from the SEALs:

Buoyed by a nostalgic notion that a silent movie is totally where it’s at, Sunday night’s 84th annual Academy Awards telecast on ABC turned into a dull exercise in the ol’ Hollywood self-salute, a sentimental journey, as if the industry was performing CPR on a business model that is vanishing before everyone’s eyes.

Billy Crystal, hosting his ninth Oscar show (his first was in 1990, his most recent was in 2004), seemed to be overseeing a cruise ship dinner show designed to appeal to the over-50 travel club. Early on, it hit the rocks and started to list. Almost everyone drowned. …

Broke and desperate? How 99 percent. “Nothing can take the sting out of economic crisis like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues,” Crystal joked. He pulled out a lot of ba-da-dum gags that at least (the very least) had the appeal of seeming familiar as comfy slippers: There was the opening montage inserting the host into some of the year’s more memorable movie scenes (Justin Bieber and Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr. in a 1920s “Midnight in Paris” bit, for example — “We’re going to go kill Hitler!” Sammy effused). Crystal followed that with one of those Gridiron-style musical medleys where the plots of current films are set to old show tunes and standards.

This nursing home feeling was all very apt, from the opening moment when actor Morgan Freeman came out and announced that show would “celebrate the present and look back on the [film industry’s] glorious past.” …

And sure enough, large amounts of time went to montages of classic film moments from yesteryear, as if the 30 or 40 million Americans still bothering to tune into the Academy Awards had somehow ditched film appreciation class all these years. Everyone remembers such Hollywood 101 clips and characters. The montages could have been assembled in an iMovie tutorial session.

On top of that, viewers had to sit patiently and watch sappy, pre-recorded interviews through the show that featured movie actors and filmmakers gushing about their most formative moments as moviegoers. It’s true that this entire event is built around an industry honoring its very existence — but it felt like a long commercial.

Sounds more like they were desperately trying to convince themselves of their own significance, a conceit that got thoroughly punctured by the performance of films like Stop Loss, Green Zone, The Kingdom, and Jarhead.