Monday, May 21, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.11: Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 56 (B-)

G.I. Jane is a dumbass movie, but I enjoyed it anyway. It’s a film that takes a question worth asking, “Shouldn’t women be allowed to serve their country in combat?”, and doesn’t explore it at all. Part of it has to do with the fact that Ridley Scott has rarely, if ever, gotten political in film. His films have a feminist streak, to be sure, but examinations of political systems aren’t really his forte. As it is, G.I. Jane is a case of style-over-substance. But hey, that style sure is nice.

Senator Lillian DeHaven of Texas (Anne Bancroft) has a bone to pick with the Navy: they’re not gender neutral, and there are plenty of capable women willing to serve their country. The Navy acquiesces by letting DeHaven pick a test subject for the Navy SEAL training; if she succeeds, they’ll integrate their programs. Enter Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore), a Naval Intelligence Officer selected by DeHaven specifically because she’s more feminine than most candidates. O’Neil enters the SEAL program, where the SEAL candidates treat her as if she has no place there, particularly Master Chief Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen), who believes that her presence will make the men in the program more vulnerable in combat.

G.I. Jane is no doubt modeled after Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs in its “woman with something prove joins a typically male organization”, but it isn’t nearly as intelligent. Whenever screenwriters David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra do get overtly political, it thuds with obviousness: a black character sympathizes with O’Neil and  compares her plight to being the “new nigger on the block”, and when Mortensen’s character has to spell out that “she’s not the problem, we are”, it’s bye-bye to any sense that the audience has a functioning brain. The film’s entire third act, meanwhile, is pretty much junk, where we find out that DeHaven only pushed O’Neil’s case for political purposes and purposely tries to sabotage her because she doesn’t need a woman’s death on her hands. Bancroft tears into the part like it’s a juicy steak (“you pissed off? Good, I like pissed off”), but the material is completely idiotic. The film doesn’t much question why things are the way they are (i.e., why the characters are sexist shitheads), but instead makes it a matter of sexism being an obstacle to be overcome and fought (literally, she kicks the shit out of military sexism).

But where the film fails with political relevancy, it shines in its portrayal of the training sequences, which are grueling. The SEAL candidates suffer systematic abuse in order to turn them into killing machines, and under horrific conditions. They’re forced to push gigantic barrel-shaped objects up hills and through water, run obstacle courses in the rain and mud, eat food out of disgusting barrels, write essays about why they love the Navy in pitch-black dark, and get waterboarded. It’s horrific stuff, but it’s also viscerally exciting filmmaking from a master craftsman. O’Neil is given preferential treatment at first because she’s a woman, but she fights to be treated no better or worse than anyone else (she even shaves her head to make herself less feminine). She gets her wishes: she’s treated like absolute shit, made worse by characters constantly making sexist remarks towards her.

Credit goes to the actors for their realistic performances. Moore is an actress of limited talents (I have never liked her in another film), but her expressionless line-readings and non-emotive face makes her ideal for a character that’s turned into another mindless killing machine. It’s easily her most effective performance. Mortensen, meanwhile, gives one of his earliest great performances as Master Chief Urgayle. The character’s more than just some meathead sexist- he’s an intelligent man with a penchant for quoting D.H. Lawrence (although this goes to some pretty stupid places) and who’s trying to save O’Neil’s life by keeping her out of combat. Yeah, it’s sexist, but he’s hardly a virulent chauvinist. Mortensen doesn’t judge his character or play him strictly as a villain, and it elevates the character above the shaky script.

Scott’s biggest influence for the film is obvious: Kubrick’s brutal Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket. But Scott takes a page from his most expressionistic influence, Orson Welles, as well. Few directors can get as much mileage out of a well-placed shaft of light or shadow than Scott. The director goes all-out on atmospheric fans, blue light, fog, and mist for the training sequences. There’s a moody haze over all of the primal grunting, running, and punching, and it distinguishes G.I. Jane from just another jingoistic military movie.

Scott goes all-out in what should have been the film’s climax: O’Neil and company go into a combat training session, where one boneheaded soldier gets them all captured. Urgayle doesn’t hold back in the interrogation: he messes with a soldier’s broken leg and keeps them trapped in claustrophobic cages (Scott is claustrophobic and he sells how small the spaces are). He demonstrates just why he thinks women shouldn’t be in the military. He beats O’Neil within an inch of her life and tries to use her as a way of convincing the other soldiers to give up information. When one of the soldiers berates him, he explains that doing this is going to save her from certain death in a real combat situation. O’Neil doesn’t take this too well: with both hands tied behind her back, she beats the living shit out Urgayle while shouting “suck my dick!”. She earns the respect of the other trainees. It’s dumb, without a doubt, but it’s undoubtedly effective, and Scott brings all of his signature tricks to the table: atmospheric lighting, heavy use of rain and other textures, and effective close-ups on the leads’ faces. It would have been smart to end the movie shortly after this scene.

But the film stubbornly refuses to end in a third act that feels like a pair of subplots that should have been discarded. O’Neil is forced out of the program by the aforementioned dumb political subplot. She’s portrayed by the media as a lesbian in one of the least convincing character assassination bits in movie history (and it doesn’t help that no one begs the question of “why is this a problem in the first place?”). When that business is done, a plot contrivance forces the trainees into Libya, where O’Neil saves Urgayle and earns his respect (the original ending had her dying in combat, which would have at least made the finale less pointless). Scott directs the scene like he’s in training for Black Hawk Down, but his use of shaky-cam is mostly confusing and distracting (PUSH IN PULL OUT PUSH IN PULL OUT). It feels like the sequence was directed by Scott’s infinitely less talented brother Tony Scott, whose films feel like epileptic episodes waiting to happen. My advice for anyone watching G.I. Jane: shut it off after Demi Moore fights Viggo Mortensen. That way the film remains a rousing guilty pleasure rather than a frustrating one.

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