I realize that we’re going to have to talk about the Oscars. It’s unfortunate, not least because there’s been enough written about that night to fill this whole website. I don’t want to talk about it, so we’ll get it out of the way: The Oscars joke is a good example of how ineffective this movie really is. 25 years later, what people remember from G.I. Jane is the shaved head and only the shaved head. If you asked Chris Rock what G.I. Jane was about, I think he would be hard-pressed to tell you. There’s nothing sticky, other than Ridley Scott’s eye-popping commercialism, and though most of the time that’s enough to affect me, Jane is certainly not one of those times.
G.I. Jane is an odd movie to write a retrospective on. 25 years from its release, it is neither well-remembered nor long-forgotten. It is not a stand-out in any of its creators’ vast careers. Released in 1997, it is an extremely stylish war movie. Directed by Ridley Scott, one of the lasting kings of extremely stylish war movies, who was hitting a creative peak in the late 1990s. The screenplay was written by David Twohy, who also penned the classic film The Fugitive, but has now devoted his career to making failed-start Riddick movies on repeat. The film stars Demi Moore, who as Lt. Jordan O’Neill is sort of on her second movie star run, starting with Striptease and sort of trailing off after she takes a turn as the surprise villain in McG’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (an insufferable film, even factoring in the nostalgia).
It’s a war film but without a war. In times of peace, Hollywood is often at a loss for villains. Without the Germans in the 1940s and the afterglow of WWII, filmmakers turned much more introspective. Films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now delve into the minds of those we send off to do the killing, rather than those we kill. In the ‘80s, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July reigned supreme; movies about authority and the moral failings of our system. And in the ‘90s, nestled at the midway point between the first Gulf War and the US occupation of Iraq, is G.I. Jane, a movie that tries to look inward at the militarization of the patriarchy. It fails at this, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about.
G.I. Jane sits in the pantheon of ‘90s iconography, but its message and meaning is so slippery, as the film struggles to hit hard in any of the areas that it ostensibly wants to. Is it a film about gender equality? Is it a film about war, and what we do to the people who fight it? Is it about the evils of power, and how those who have it will chew up and spit out those below? Much to its detriment, Jane is not enough about any of those things. It is a film entirely in search of a purpose, but not willing to really do the hard work to find one.
The core issue with G.I. Jane is not its politics nor its performances or even its plotting. It’s the execution. The film has many noble values: equality of competence, of performance, of spirit of the will, and leadership. But David Twohy and Ridley Scott have no grace or skill in expressing these values.
Selected for a trial program of women in Navy SEAL training, Lt. O’Neill (Moore) must prove her worth to gain the respect of her fellow trainees, who insult, condemn, and shut her out. Why does she need to do this? Well, how else will these men ever respect her if she does not prove it to them. How does she do this? Well, the filmmaker’s answer is that she must become a ‘man’.
It’s a clunky, insulting, and predictably ‘90s answer to the problem. O’Neill’s devotion to her goals is not shown as much in her competence in training as it is in her shaving her head. Her success gains steam not when she passes through the notorious ‘hell week,’ but when she begins to engage in ball-busting camaraderie with her other trainees. Her team is not won over by her tactical prowess nearly as much as it is by her getting in the face of her attacker and screaming ‘Suck my dick!’
Through all of this, Moore herself is unbelievably sexualized. It’s the area that Scott really does have proficiency. High-concept music video montages of sweaty workouts and crop tops. Stretched legs and curling abs. It’s no wonder that the only thing that has stuck around from the film for the past 25 years is this sexual iconography. The shaved head, the one-armed pushup, the ripped abs. I know that Moore worked hard to portray someone who could conceivably train at that level, and it shows. It’s all incredibly effective and sexy, but it undercuts the goodwill the movie is trying to earn.
The film also unfortunately features a scene of sexual assault that is completely stomach-churning. Ignoring it seems like a disservice. There are important and vital things to be said in film about sexual assault in the military, and the rampant ignorance thereof. But G.I. Jane has no interest in doing anything but using it as another grueling test for Moore’s character, which now (and probably then) feels over the line.
I’m not sure there’s a version of this movie that’s great, or at least approaches its goals with the complexity they deserve. If there is, it’s certainly made by filmmakers who have a more personal connection to the story.
Producer Danielle Alexandra came up with the original idea and wrote the first few drafts of the script. We don’t know what that looked like, but clearly as Twohy and Scott got their hands in the pot it morphed into the shapely action piece that was finally made. Alexandra speaks highly of the collaboration, saying, “but what makes the screenplay so great is that you have David as the action writer, and me as the dramatic action, character writer. I genuinely believe that G.I. Jane is more special because it has this combination of writing in it.” I’m happy that it was a collaborative process, but the fruits don’t bear it out. The two modes of this movie don’t support each other, they undercut the other, and leave the audience slightly bewildered.
In a quote from filmscouts.com about the film, Moore says, “I wasn’t interested in just stepping into a man’s character in an action movie. What G.I. Jane afforded me was the opportunity to deal not only with the enormous physical demands of the action genre but also to be involved with something that had great substance. The story deals with a subject matter that is not only topical but also very important, because of the bigger issue of women having more choices available to them.”
Maybe that’s true. Maybe that was Demi’s feeling going into this project, or her feeling based on an earlier version of this script, but it is not the product that we ended up with. The substance is what’s lacking, Demi. G.I. Jane addresses the issue of women in combat, but from such a high tower as to make you almost forget it’s there. Scott & Co. are desperate to kick the female empowerment crap under the rug and just pump us full of glitzy action sequences. Perhaps that’s how they felt they needed to sell it to commercial audiences at the time.
The film has other issues of its time, which are certainly shocking, like the use of the military’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy to try to force O’Neill out of the program. It’s harder to look back and criticize that as a failing of the film, and not largely as a failing of our national stance on homosexuality in the late ‘90s, which, by all accounts, was pretty despicable.
G.I. Jane is, despite all this, incredibly watchable. That’s maybe part of its insidiousness. The polish is there, and the performances are top-notch. Viggo Mortensen is great. He’s rail thin but produces such a waft of macho energy that I never once doubted he belonged among the SEALs. Anne Bancroft as the scheming Senator is incredible even if her role is boilerplate and the most obvious twist of the movie. And Demi Moore’s work clearly pays off. She’s huge, and buff, and physical, and she is in it the whole time. The action sequences work, and they’re fun. It’s all very produced.
Watching this movie was hugely entertaining, but as I started putting this piece together, its commercialism faded, and what I was left with was the sad wisp of its message about women.
As of 2021, a woman had completed the Navy Special Warfare training, but there are no active participating female Navy SEALs. I hope one day there will be, though I wouldn’t suggest G.I. Jane as a roadmap to that. So then what is G.I. Jane’s legacy after all that? At this point, probably just the shaved head and a joke at the Oscars.