Kick 'Em When They're Down

G.I. Jane

area theaters, starts Friday

MIDWAY THROUGH G.I. Jane, Ridley Scott's old-fashioned (if equal-opportunity) war movie, I thought: How clever! They've circumvented our unfortunate post-Cold War peace by turning a U.S. military training camp into a physical/ideological battleground. Note the manipulative, cowardly enemy (it's your own government!), scheming to prevent the heroine from getting a fair shake at becoming a killer. See the fledgling soldiers, suffering graphic torture, pain, and humiliation, in order to make better cogs in the machine. Watch a leader emerge--harder, smarter, and more "honorable" than the rest. Be assured that right will prevail.

Or, in this case, the Right. A movie that talks loudly out both sides of its neck, G.I. Jane ringingly supports what it calls the "integration" of the military, including combat forces--but if and only if women put up and shut up. The first thing out of the mouth of the Navy SEALS drill sergeant (who goes by the amusingly redundant title of "Command Master Chief") is a D.H. Lawrence poem to the effect that frozen birds do not pity themselves. It's obvious even before Scott throws these lines at us twice more that Jordan (Demi Moore), the female SEALS wannabe, must never complain about even the most egregious harassment (a threatened rape in front of her entire team, say) if she is to earn her stripes.

Nor should she entertain, even for a moment, the idea that the military's historical discrimination against women might warrant her getting "special treatment." No self-pity! G.I. Jane dismisses affirmative action as quickly as Clarence Thomas, and is just as disingenuous about any positive impact it might have had in the past. As part of a political deal, a woman senator (Anne Bancroft) gets Jordan into the SEALS training camp--no application necessary. Once there, however, Jordan fiercely (cue swelling orchestra) rejects any allowances for her sex, up to and including separate showers. Scott devotes an entire scene to Jordan shaving her head. A woman next to me actually cried out.

All this strain and sweat to earn the reluctant respect of the other SEALS and their commanding officer (Viggo Mortensen). But the funny thing is that the film itself treats Jordan very differently than it does her rather anonymous male comrades--and not just in making her the hero. At one point, we get a close-up of Moore's preternaturally buoyant breasts in a skimpy bra; at another, we get a long look at an artfully posed Moore standing naked in the shower. As for the steel-and-shadow footage of our G.I. Jane in the throes of working out: Would the President's Council on Physical Fitness approve of push ups done with such a provocatively curved spine?

According to G.I. Jane's double standard, it's not enough for Jordan to be a ballbreaker; she has to be a brick house, too. Lest you think that's just Hollywood-as-usual, the movie makes a point of these requirements: Scanning possible candidates for her "test case," Bancroft's woman senator holds up one photo and crows, "She looks like the wife of a Russian beet farmer." Next, the camera zooms in on a picture of a heavily built, wide-faced woman (cue audience laughter). Then, perusing Jordan's shots, the senator purrs, "This really is top drawer--with silk stockings inside." Ugh.

Given such self-serving puffery, cynics like myself may wonder whether G.I. Jane signals a smidgen of defensiveness in the Demi Moore meta-narrative. She has been Hollywood's highest-paid female actor, duking it out with the guys who get $20-mil per gig. But after The Scarlet Letter and Striptease, she's got to be meeting some dubious faces around town. So the real story is: Can a female star successfully open a picture against the likes of Jim Carrey? The success of Moore's cinematic alter ego proves she can, despite the evil machinations of the authorities (i.e. studio heads). With hard work and determination, our heroine will survive the cuts and blows (of nasty reviews and bad box office) to triumph once again.

Maybe G.I. Jane really will put Moore back on top. After the screening, I overheard a woman say, "I bet that one will make lots of money." (I think she liked it.) On the scale of Ridley Scott movies, G.I. Jane may be closer to 1492: Conquest of Paradise than Alien, but it's a competently made, efficiently paced action movie--and one that eventually gets to blow up some really nasty guys (they're not just sexists, they're Libyans!). And I have to admit that even this pissy critic felt a certain thrill when Jordan turned the tables on her would-be rapist, proceeding to kick him when he was down. Stop the presses: Women can be brutal. Who knew?

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