Fleet Week: G.I. JANE

A furious feminist war film that remains relevant to our times

The Navy SEALs are one of the fiercest combat forces in the history of warfare. There has been no shortage of movies glorifying their daring deeds as well as the nightmarish selection processes through which they select the best of the best. For today’s Fleet Week installment, I’ll be taking a look at Ridley Scott’s 1997 action drama G.I. Jane. Ridley Scott’s body of work is an eclectic mix of legendary classics and famously questionable misfires. I felt today’s selection was appropriate since the film serves as an excellent complement to his younger brother Tony’s masterwork Crimson Tide from two years earlier. Whereas Tony goes for more bombastic fare, Ridley has many prestige pictures under his belt. Ironically, both films are among my favorites from their respective directors for a peculiar reason: Crimson Tide feels like Tony Scott trying to make a Ridley Scott movie, while G.I. Jane feels like Ridley Scott trying to make a Tony Scott movie. And to their credit, both succeed marvelously.

G.I. Jane stars Demi Moore as Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil, an analyst chosen to be the first ever candidate for the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Group training program. During a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for a new Secretary of the Navy, Senator Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) from Texas criticizes the Navy for not being gender-neutral. A behind the scenes deal is struck to prompting an experiment to see if women can compete and keep up with the male recruits. Jordan jumps at the chance as a way to gain operational experience required to advance to the higher levels of leadership in career, hoping that she will break through the glass ceiling of restrictions placed on women prohibiting them from combat roles. Despite facing virulent misogyny by her peers, O’Neil nonetheless excels during the nightmarish phase of training known as Hell Week. However, when political machinations seek to sabotage her progress and career, she fights back with all the tools available to her like a true warrior, and ultimately proves her worth and the worth of all women in uniformed service through a final trial by fire in combat.

When we talk about movies being “of their time,” the phrase certainly applies to G.I. Jane, yet it still has relevance to our society today. Released in the middle of the Clinton era, the movie tackles issues about gender inequality and military policy head on without any subtlety whatsoever. The Navy leadership is seen as a pig headed boys club, mocking or outright hostile towards progressive polices towards inclusion such as sensitivity training. O’Neil faces all manner of harassment and condescension from peers and seniors alike, as her classmates are aghast like silly schoolboys over the presence of tampons encroaching on their hollowed masculine territory. Even the politicians and civilians within the film view her achievements incredulously and even with contempt, as when the Senator mocks other potential female candidates for being too butch. This overt discrimination and hostility against the LGBT community reflects the contentious “Dont Ask, Dont Tell” policy made law in 1993 that prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, while barring openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service.

Demi Moore acquits herself dutifully to the role of a firebrand upstart looking to shake up old systems. She was indeed no stranger to controversy in her own right, having starred in the infamous film Striptease a year prior. Incidentally, for as terrible as that movie turned out to be, Moore committed herself to the physicality of that part by showcasing a fantastically fit physique, which was no doubt a tremendous help in preparing for the grueling requirements necessary to properly portray a Navy SEAL candidate with a modicum of realism. Even her shaved head was treated as a big deal at the time, a defiance of how a conventionally attractive woman was allowed to be presented on screen. All told, Moore was the perfect amalgam of feminine grace, intellect, and raw determination born of blood, sweat and tears. It is indeed a role for the ages that I can scarcely imagine any other actor pulling off.

While G.I. Jane is perhaps a role Demi Moore was born to play, the movie doesnt truly work without the commanding presence of the great Viggo Mortensen as Master Chief John James Urgayle, head instructor of the selection course. Urgayle and his cadre magnificently embody the mystique of Navy Seal Instructors, capturing their essence as howling mad commandos, steely eyed quiet professionals, and bronzed warriors of Greek fables in equal measure. Moreover, he is one of the few men who treat O’Neil as an equal as much as possible. He does reveal a sinister mindset during an incredibly violent and intense standoff with O’Neil during the dreaded SERE portion of their training, but like a consummate professional, he recognizes the error of his ways and resolves to uphold the true honor and virtue that the Navy SEALs and our Armed Forces stand for.

All told, G.I. Jane feels somewhat ham-fisted and quaint now, but the electric chemistry between the actors and the importance of its message can still be felt today. Whats more, although no female Navy SEAL exists today, the military lifted its gender restrictions on all combat roles, effective January of 2016. This decision was due largely because throughout the Global War on Terror campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world, women have proven themselves as capable in combat, risking their lives in direct fire. According to a 2015 Congressional report analyzed by Military.com, more than 9,000 women earned Combat Action Badges and hundreds have earned valor awards, to include the Silver Star.

Additionally, Army Capt. Kristen Griest and Army 1st Lt. Shaye Haver made history in 2015 by becoming the first women to ever complete the venerated US Army Ranger School. Captain Griest went on to make history once more in 2016 by becoming the first ever female Infantry Officer, paying tribute to the many women who have fallen in battle and paving the way for future female combatants to serve their country proudly and without restriction. What was once a proactive parable in the movies is now becoming reality, and we are all the greater for it.