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Looking Back: G.I. Jane (1997)

As of this writing, there are currently no female Navy SEALS. Although women are now permitted to undergo the famously grueling training course, potential applicants have yet to step up. Technically, the first ever female Navy SEAL is named Kristin Beck, though she served as Chris Beck before transitioning into a woman after her military service. While it is a remarkable sign of progress that women are no longer forbidden to become Navy SEALS, the first female Navy SEAL, and those who follow after her, have yet to become a part of history.

I mention this because Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane,” which now 20 years old, remains a hot-button fantasy about a topic that remains controversial.

Demi Moore stars as Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil, a soldier who is permitted to participate in test case training sessions with all male soldiers. Jordan struggles to survive the “hell week” Navy SEAL training course, in which she and other soldiers are informed, “60% of you will not pass this course.”

O’Neil is constantly berated for being a woman. Although she’s an exceptional candidate and more than up for the physical demands and heaps of verbal abuse, O’Neil is undermined by the “fairness” of her training. She turns to the flashy senator (played by Anne Bancroft) who got her into the program and discovers that the logic of her acceptance is flawed. It seems the discomfort of her sex in the midst of a male dominated setting goes far beyond the men she trains with.

The film itself has aged in some notable ways but here we are, decades later, and the notion of women serving in combat still makes some people extremely uncomfortable. Scott made the provocative 1991 summer drama “Thelma & Louise” and was once again returning to the topic of female empowerment, identity and equality. Unfortunately, while Callie Khouri’s Oscar winning screenplay for “Thelma & Louise” was smart, nuanced and piercing, the script for ‘G.I. Jane” is not in the same caliber. Co-written by David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra, the dialog is too spell-it-all-out, preachy and obvious, with Bancroft assigned the worst of the one-liners. The novelty of seeing the former Mrs. Robinson playing a morally compromised Washington ball-buster is undermined by how broadly her character is etched. While Bancroft is always good, her role comes across as cartoonish.

At one point, someone retorts “Why don’t they just get it over with and call her Joan of Arc?” The reference is spot-on, as Moore looks strikingly like Maria Falconetti from Carl Theodore Dryer’s 1928 “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (as well as Sigourney Weaver in “Alien 3,” another work about female identity and suffering).

In the same way O’Neil’s journey for acceptance was pre-determined to fail, “G.I. Jane” also had a hard time getting the respect it deserved. Moore was undoubtedly one of the biggest movie stars of the 1990’s. Although most of her biggest hits had top tier male leads (like Michael Douglas, Robert Redford and Patrick Swayze), her massive appeal and underrated abilities as an actress made her in-demand throughout the decade. Then “Striptease” happened.

It’s not Moore’s fault that the high-profile, un-liked and deeply unfunny “Striptease” was a total flop. What didn’t help matters were the press reports that she was paid $20 million to star in the comedy and occasionally appear nude. Moore is hardly the worst thing about “Striptease” but the film’s failure was placed on her shoulders in the same way her Hester Prynne wore a Scarlett Letter A, in the Nathaniel Hawthorne adaptation Moore made a year prior. “G.I. Jane” was Moore’s follow-up to “Striptease” and the suffering her character undergoes felt like an atonement for her “sins” of appearing in bad movies.

In addition to the incredible physical shape Moore committed to, her acting has never been more soulful. Despite how commanding her presence is here, she’s rarely seemed this vulnerable in a film. While she’s been great elsewhere (just look at her work in “A Few Good Men” or “Disclosure”), “G.I. Jane” is her finest performance.

In addition to Bancroft’s welcome scene stealing, Viggo Mortensen’s chilling, sensational turn as the Command Master Chief energizes every scene. It’s no wonder that this is the performance that launched Mortensen, as its among the best, most transformative he’s given.

The title is as on-the-nose and glib as much of the dialog. At one point, it was wisely suggested the title be changed to “In Pursuit of Honor,” but “G.I. Jane” stuck (and not favorably, as some would refer to it that way mockingly). After much negative press, the film opened late into the summer of 1997. Audiences and especially critics seemed surprised by just how good the film is.

Scott makes all of this compelling, especially the gut churning training scenes. The final battle sequence seems tacked on and doesn’t have the impact of what came before it. Yet, leave it to Scott to make every setting vivid and every scene have an understated beauty. While not on par with “Thelma & Louise” in its gender politics and confrontational topics, Scott, Moore and Mortensen give this the dramatic heft it needs. The title still stinks and some of this plays like a self-parody but “G.I. Jane” addresses the touchy issue of women in combat and remains a gritty, entertaining and under-valued work. The film evokes a hope that the first female Navy SEAL won’t remain a thing of fantasy.



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