Navy SEALs never expected the film "Act of Valor," starring real, active-duty Navy SEALs, to be this big.
Five years ago, commanders allowed a small, independent film company into their elite ranks to turn real-life training exercises into a feature-length movie in hopes of drumming up recruits fast.
SEAL officers thought the film would open in a couple of theaters in military towns, then quietly move to cable television, where re-runs would draw likeminded youths to join the special operations world.
Then came the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, and a high-profile hostage rescue in Somalia last month. President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address and gave a shout-out to SEALS, with Adm. Bill McRaven, the SEAL and bin Laden raid commander, sitting quietly in Obama's box.
Now, the once modest recruiting project is set to open Feb. 24 in roughly 2,500 theaters nationwide, putting an uncomfortable spotlight on a group that prides itself on keeping its collective mouth shut about clandestine operations.
The officers and staff who helped bring the film about spoke on condition of anonymity because they are embarrassed by the massive media blitz and public interest, and — most of all — they are tired of getting grief from their special operations colleagues, whose daring exploits haven't made it into the headlines.
One of the few that's gone on record is overall special operations commander McRaven.
"It was initially started as a recruiting film so we could help recruit minorities into the teams," McRaven explained. He said he didn't think the film gave anything away to the enemy, nor would it put in danger the SEALs who starred in it.
McRaven told a Washington audience recently that he'd signed up for special operations forces after seeing the 1968 John Wayne film, "The Green Berets," and that he had worked on the movie "Raise the Titanic" as a young ensign, also to drive recruitment.
Toward that end, the script was designed to showcase two things, according to producer-directors Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh: real acts of valor by SEALs on the battlefield since Sept. 11, and the SEALs' unique technical abilities to reach a target by sea, air or land as the acronym suggests.
"We say to the team, 'How would you do the operation?'" like capturing a terror suspect on a yacht, "and we would augment our camera plan to film what they came up with," McCoy said in an interview.
"That's why the movie took four years to make because we would have to wait for that training" to film a particular skill, Waugh added.
At a special preview in Washington last fall, the reaction from the SEAL community was positive overall. The preview was one of many the producers, known as the Bandito Brothers, made possible, both to gauge the community's reaction and to raise money for the Naval SEAL Foundation, which benefits families of fallen SEALs.
The SEALs take pride in how much the movie gets right, such as how the team meets up with a submarine mid-ocean or jumps from aircraft thousands of feet above ground to land accurately to rescue a hostage in a remote location, just as they did in Somalia. None of the special operators thought it gave too much away to the enemy in terms of tactics.
Some SEALS, however, griped that the film was not technically perfect. For instance, during the high-altitude, low-opening parachute scenes, the SEALs have casual chats with the plane door open before strapping on oxygen masks and jumping out. One operator said they would have had the masks on for half an hour beforehand. Also, the Bandito Brothers requested the explosions be slightly larger than they would be in the field, and the guns often were un-silenced.
The Bandito Brothers say the critics they most feared were the guys with whom they made the film.
"We had one goal: that the guys would want to share a beer with us afterwards," said McCoy. "And we still are."