My sense is that my son has not been terribly impressed with my movie selections to date — though he did really like The Shawshank Redemption and, to a lesser degree, Empire of the Sun. Or maybe it’s just that I’m too predictable, and the messages I’m trying to impart are just a little too simplistic, especially given their blatant Hollywood guise. Or maybe I don’t have as many “life lessons” to impart as I thought since, apparently, eight movies into this project I already seem to be repeating myself with alarming regularity.
My son has been struggling with his math grade somewhat of late, which is not inconsequential given that he needs this mark to get into the degree program he wants to pursue in university. Since G.I. Jane was already on my movie list for this project anyway, I figured now would be the perfect time to share it with him since its if-you-really-want-something-you-sometimes-have-to-work-REALLY-hard-to-get-it theme should be immediately transferable given his current challenges.
He saw me coming from waaaay off, however. As I pressed the start button on the AppleTV controller, he caught sight of the title and a fleeting glimpse of the story summary from the iTunes movie screen and immediately told me to pause it. He turned to me and only barely managed not to roll his eyes. “Let me guess,” he said, his voice already forming the “air quotes” he didn’t even need to trouble his fingers to generate. “No matter who you are — race, gender, religion, whatever — and people put you down for it, and try to hold you back, you can still do great things if you put your mind to it and work really hard.” Then after a beat. “Right?”
“Yeah,” I had to admit. It was that simple. I gave him the option of not watching if he wasn’t interested, but apparently I won the pity vote and we watched it together anyway.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film all the way through and, to be honest, it was actually a little better than I remembered it. Anne Bancroft, as the pragmatic, horse-trading senator was damn near pitch perfect; Viggo Mortensen was convincingly inscrutable — behind the mirrored sunglasses — as the grizzled senior drill instructor (is he for her or agin her? we’re constantly left asking ourselves); and Demi Moore herself was clearly at her hard-body best at this point in her career.
Certainly the writing, and the nuances it seemed to impart, was better than I remembered it:
On why women, supposedly the “weaker sex,” shouldn’t be banned from combat units: “How strong do you need to be to pull a trigger?”
On ringing the bell to be “Dropped on Request” from the brutally intensive SEAL training course: “Go ahead, be ashamed for the rest of your fucking lives!”
On why the recruits often tell the medical officer they wanted to join the program in the first place: “Cuz I get to blow shit up!”
On being a female guinea pig in a fundamentally male program like the SEALs: “Big symbols make big targets.”
For all its Hollywood pedigree, however, I still think G.I. Jane is a film that deals fairly compellingly with the problems and complexities of seeking to overcome entrenched prejudices in an attempt to generate some sort of level playing field for meritocracy to flourish. And in doing so the film is honest enough, likewise, to seek to mine the “meta” complexities of its own self-reflexive awareness of this particular brand of “affirmative action.” When, for example, Demi Moore complains to the CO that she’s effectively being undermined by not being treated as an equal to the men in the unit (i.e. she’s not expected to compete as rigorously as they must), he points out the irony that if she were, in fact, treated the same as her male peers, she certainly wouldn’t be in the position to belittle the CO about it as she is currently doing!
The message becomes even more explicit when Moore and her boat crew are dumped in the sea far from shore and expected to find their own way back to camp. Moore’s character gets blamed for this dumping because she missed the Zodiak extraction pick-up they were practising, but an African American squad mate quickly comes to her defence with his own tale of how, as recently as the second world war, the only job his grandfather was allowed to pursue onboard an aircraft carrier was being a cook. He had wanted to be a navy pilot but was advised that blacks simply didn’t have adequate night vision to become pilots. Which we know, of course, is unfounded nonsense. So why is it again, we are left asking ourselves, that women shouldn’t be allowed in combat units?
And what did my son think when it was over? I got the usual noncommittal, “It was OK.” Then a bit of a clarification: “C’mon, Dad, it’s just a standard military movie. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It was really just Hacksaw Ridge with a woman, rather than a conscientious objector, playing the underdog.”
And, at least in the most reductionist sense, I suppose he’s right. Which leads me to conclude a couple of other things.
- It suddenly appears fairly obvious to me that I seem to be convinced that life is something of a hurdle that needs to be continuously overcome. And, apparently, I’ve always sought to overcome it using a handful of fairy basic “go-to” military metaphors.
- I may have to seriously re-think my selections for the remaining 16 months of this exercise! It might be time for a comedy…