AS I WATCHED Demi Moore sweat and suffer and grit her teeth through Navy SEAL training in "G.I. Jane," it struck me that what I was seeing was a metaphor for her whole career. Like the character she plays, Moore is a woman no one thought capable of completing the task she set for herself -- becoming a star. And like her character, what did she have to get herself there but determination, the willingness to sweat and -- perhaps -- the belief that her obvious grasping for success endeared her to us as plucky and courageous?
Certainly neither talent nor charisma nor the sort of star presence that ignites an audience's imagination played a part in Moore's ascent. Her presence is too tinny and unyielding for that. There's something of Joan Crawford's steely desperation to stay on top in Moore (though without the magnetism that made even the later, mannered Crawford a star) combined with something altogether crasser and more calculating. It's as if Moore thought she could win us over simply by keeping herself in front of us, and by letting the trappings of success convince us of her star wattage. ("She's the highest-paid movie actress ever? Wow! She must be great!")
But after the box office failures of "The Juror," "The Scarlet Letter" and "Striptease," Moore finds her star status in doubt. "G.I. Jane" isn't just her bid to prove she can deliver, but a chance to shove all her hard work right in our face. What will I do for success? she seems to be asking. Put myself through actual SEAL training? You bet. Shave my head on camera? No problem. It's less a performance than it is the Stations of the Cross. She may be performing for us, but it's the industry she has to answer to. And as you see in the carefully crafted pre-release hype, meant to position "G.I. Jane" somewhere between summer blockbuster and prestige release, you can feel the industry gathering like vultures. Or at least standing by like a drill sergeant ready to make Demi prove what she's worth. Drop and give me 12 million!
"G.I. Jane" may be just what Moore needs. This hot-button picture isn't especially well thought-out, but it might be crafty and manipulative enough to rile up audiences. And as he did in the similarly shrewd yet feather-brained "Thelma and Louise," the director, Ridley Scott, may even be able to convince people they're seeing a risky treatment of a controversial issue.
Moore plays Jordan O'Neil, a Navy radar intelligence analyst who finds herself caught in a power struggle between a Texas senator (Anne Bancroft) who wants the military to integrate sexually and the nominee for secretary of the Navy (Daniel von Bargen), who's determined to stick to the status quo. He comes up with a scheme to offer carefully selected military women the chance to train for positions previously open only to men, the toughest of which is offered to O'Neil, the beyond-grueling three-month training program for Navy SEALs, which has a 60 percent dropout rate. His reasoning is that when O'Neil fails, he can say he tried integration and go back to business as usual.
What he hasn't counted on is our Demi, who not only stays the course but also, trooper that she is, insists that she be given no special privileges. Of course, her fellow recruits (rendered, by Scott, indistinguishable from each other) are certain she hasn't got what it takes, as is her predictably hard-ass drill instructor (Viggo Mortensen). What isn't predictable is that this character has been given a hilariously fetishistic name -- "Master Chief" (didn't Texaco sell that?) -- and an even more fetishistic look. With his Village People mustache, reflector shades and tight little shorts, he's a Tom of Finland dream date. The only person who reckons poor Demi has a better chance of completing training than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest is the sole black recruit. "To them, you just the new nigger on the block," he says of her superiors. And sho 'nuff, back in Washington, the Navy bigwigs are getting together a lynch mob, nervously watching O'Neil's progress, trying to find something that will discredit her and thus prove their contention that women aren't fit for combat.
For all the melodramatic contrivances in David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra's script, as it follows Demi from training to actual Middle East combat with live, shooting Libyans, its basic premise is valid. You'd have to have your head in the sand not to think that the military will do almost anything to keep from becoming sexually integrated. Historically, the armed forces, which are perhaps even more distrustful and contemptuous of the public they're supposed to be serving than the police are, have changed only under direct order, as when Truman ended racial segregation in the services. That's the only way women will ever go to combat and gays will ever serve openly.
Still, "G.I. Jane" is a stacked deck. Scott has made sure that all the men opposing integration are sweaty blobs (like Von Bargen -- a poster boy for acid indigestion), have bad teeth or chomp cigars (like the fine actor Scott Wilson -- wasted -- as Moore's commanding officer). He hasn't exactly done great by the women, either. Scott gets laughs off the way Bancroft's whiskey-drinkin', plain-talkin' senator (a sly reference to former Texas Gov. Ann Richards) vetoes several candidates for SEAL training because they look mannish. You might wonder why that matters when the candidate's identity is going to be kept secret? That's not the only implausibility. The movie says that Bancroft is less concerned with integrating the military than with using the issue to enhance her power. But if she wants to enhance her power, why press for integration in the first place? Is that the way to get reelected in Texas? And though we see Navy intelligence keeping tabs on Demi, they're so uninformed they unwittingly hire her boyfriend (Jason Beghe) to do it.
The big problem with "G.I. Jane" is the same one faced by all military training movies (with the exception of "From Here to Eternity"). For the hero or heroine to be successful, he or she has to be willing to submit to all manner of psychological and physical abuse, to give up the independence and instinct and distrust of authority that wins us over to heroes in the first place. Who wants to root for somebody with that little self-respect? Military training as it's practiced in this country is, by any reasonable standard, sociopathic. People attracted to the military often feel contempt for the "softness" of society. In peacetime, military training lets them live out a fantasy of being better, tougher than civilians. Military officials often sound out of touch with reality when they argue for huge defense budgets and the necessity of "preparedness," as if they imagined lurking enemies on every border. Some months back, it was reported that SEALs were actually being subjected to some of the torture methods they might face if captured, a practice that raises questions about the trainers' ability to distinguish reality from maneuvers. Try to imagine that approach in other jobs -- say, if cops were shot at to see how they reacted under fire.
This is why it's impossible even for those of us who believe that women have the right to serve to regard women rising in the military as a feminist victory. In "G.I. Jane," as in "Thelma and Louise," the moments held up as feminist triumphs are when women imitate the worst of male behavior. In "G.I. Jane," the moment comes (and the audience cheers) when Moore tells Master Chief, "Suck my dick!" The line suggests that women will be successful in the military when they think of themselves as men (the worst thing they can be called is a "pussy"). We can pay lip service to equal opportunity all we want, but does anybody really believe that it's a triumph for women to submit themselves to a system that reveres the old male horseshit about manhood equaling physical strength and courage and bonding and contempt for anyone weaker? In its crude, rabble-rousing way, "G.I. Jane" suggests exactly how the military will allow women to be all they can be -- by recognizing their constitutional right to say, "Suck my dick!" and kill Libyans.