One Woman’s War

Demi Moore in G.I. Jane.

G.I. Jane
Directed by Ridley Scott
Hollywood Pictures

Well before Southern Baptists alerted us to the scene in which a bald, filthy, bleeding Demi Moore roughs up a man and tells him to “suck my dick,” there was reason to fear that G.I. Jane might be a trip to the trash can. There was the name, which sounded like it was dreamed up by a marketing expert in the hope that the film would spawn a lucrative line of toys. There was the lead actress. Of late, playing the frequently naked Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, and the even more frequently naked working mom in Striptease, Moore has not shone like a star for the ages. Indeed, earlier this year Disney postponed the release of G.I. Jane after test audiences revealed that while they liked the movie all right, they were surprised they liked anything with Demi Moore in it.

Yet people who dismiss Moore and G.I. Jane out of hand are wrong, because she makes a memorably tough heroine and the movie is solid fun, even, in places, quite intelligent. Moore plays Jordan O’Neil, who, when the film opens, is working as a topographical analyst in Navy intelligence. She’s smart and driven, with the kind of tactless self-assurance that alienates her colleagues; also, well after the fact, she’s still angry that she was turned down for service in the Gulf War. Meanwhile, the Senate is preparing to swear in a new secretary of defense, and Sen. Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) decides to sponsor the first woman through the infamously hellish training of the elite Navy SEALs. It turns out to be a cynical political maneuver. DeHaven wants it to look like she’s promoting women in the military, but she’s really counting on the lone woman to fail. In fact, she has cut a deal with the new secretary: The Navy SEALs will stay all-male, in return for which the Navy won’t close any bases in the senator’s home district.

O’Neil, the fall girl, shows up at boot camp raring to go, and her struggle to get through training is the heart of the film. It’s the old underdog-in-the-military story, and it’s been told so many times we ought to weep from boredom. But simply changing the hero’s sex makes every tried-and-true plot point eerily unfamiliar. The SEALs’ head instructor, Command Master Chief John Urgayle (a charismatic, skeletally thin Viggo Mortensen), is a total sadist but also secretly wise, even somewhat mystical. (In his spare time, he reads D.H. Lawrence.) If O’Neil were a man, she would fight with Urgayle like a son with his father. But Urgayle isn’t guiding O’Neil down a known path of hurdles into manhood. He just doesn’t want her around. And so it goes with her fellow trainees. When a Richard Gere or a Tom Cruise shows up for military training, he bonds with certain guys and gets into macho contests with others. O’Neil can do neither. In a strong early scene, she enters the cafeteria and the men whistle, then they titter among themselves. No one approaches to befriend her, so she sits by herself, vulnerable, gritting her teeth. It’s a brief and quiet moment, but Moore’s teary eyes haven’t been this effective since Ghost.

Ridley Scott might seem like an odd choice to direct this film. He’s still best known for the much more elaborate, atmospheric Blade Runner, in which the only woman was a noir-style femme fatale who turned out to be a robot. But improbably, Scott has become a leading director of films about women in the world of men. First he made Alien, which introduced the giantess Sigourney Weaver in the kind of grim, lonely warrior role that used to go to a man. Later, he made Thelma & Louise.

In terms of sexual politics, G.I. Jane may actually be the most urgent of the three, because its subject, the integration of the military, raises questions of pressing interest to us. Where should soldiers of different sexes sleep? Should a woman be handicapped on an obstacle course? Should she be subjected to corporal punishment? G.I. Jane ends up arguing that women should get exactly the same opportunities as men, and that they should be held to the same brutal standards. Thankfully, Scott gets this message across without too much high-flown rhetoric. He doesn’t celebrate male bonding, but neither is he out to get the military. His style here is neutral, detached–even strangely androgynous. When O’Neil takes some trainees out on a trial mission, Scott has the camera follow the action from a respectful distance, like an anthropologist who’s stumbled on a new tribe.

For entertainment’s sake, there’s a punchy script by Danielle Alexandra and David Twohy. (Ironically, the film’s publicity kit announces that he handled the battle scenes, while she tackled human interest.) There’s not a lot of talking, but when the characters do talk, the dialogue is funnier than the dialogue in most action movies. Bancroft’s sneaky senator combines Geraldine Ferraro’s smooth silver hairdo with Ann Richards’ folksy truck-driver wit; she reels off a number of good lines, rejecting one beefy female candidate for SEALs’ training because “you’d have to check for chromosomes.” As for “suck my dick,” it may be vulgar, and not as catchy as one-liners like “read my lips” and “I’ll be back,” but it’s in character, and a lot wittier than this summer’s main competition: the moment in Air Force One when Harrison Ford solemnly tells the terrorist to “get off my plane.”

B ut G.I. Jane rides on Moore’s performance. Few actresses could shave their heads and look this beautiful, and even fewer could do sit-ups while hanging upside down. Actually, the film could use fewer sit-ups; these and all the one-armed push-ups do sometimes give the film the feel of a vanity project. But I doubt any other actress could have played this role better. Any woman this determined to bulldoze her way through the Navy SEALs must be insanely ambitious, constantly on guard against those who want her to stumble. Any rage she may feel at the sight of less-qualified male colleagues getting promoted she must express not by complaining, but by doing better. If she is inarticulate, too tense to have much of a sense of humor; if she is even, deep down, kind of boring–so much the better. A more gifted actress might have tried to give us a picture of O’Neil’s inner life. Moore is O’Neil. Her identification with the character is what gives the film its odd power.

Yet when I saw Moore promoting G.I. Jane on a talk show the other day, she’d done a 180-degree turn. Her face was scrubbed, almost makeup-free, and her dress was flowery. She’d grown out her buzz cut to Winona Ryder length, and the look was that of an innocent, wistful pixie. She did not seem to be a person likely to say “suck my dick.” It’s tempting to conclude from this that she’s empty at the core, trying on different personas to hide her lack of a self. But she seemed more like someone who had tried to play herself, met with hostility, and was now at a loss. Moore was recently quoted as saying that Americans want her to fail, and that she and Bruce Willis might pick up and move to Europe. I’ve never been a fan of hers, but if G.I. Jane fails to score big and if the press then lumps it in with her previous flops, I’d have to say that she’s right. Demi Moore is out in front on this one. She’s given us a picture of a pioneer. But like women in combat, she’s something we’re not prepared to accept.

CO Salem (Scott Wilson) thrusts a cigar in O’Neil’s face (Moore) (59 seconds):
Sound01 - gijane.avi or Sound03 -; download time, 2.75 minutes at 56K {Sound02 - Movie-gijane1.asf for sound only

“Lieutenant O’Neil, when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” Urgayle (Mortensen) slams the door in O’Neil’s face (Moore) (49 seconds):
Sound04 - gijane1.avi or Sound05 -; download time, 2.50 minutes at 56K Sound06 - Movie-gijane2.asf for sound only