War and cinema have always been intertwined. In World War II, many films were made to advance the war effort in both Europe and the South Pacific. These films almost always followed the same formula of “battle and heroism,” centered around stories of men coming from small towns to be sworn into a brotherhood to which they were loyal. They protected the freedom of America. Actors such as John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen and Gregory Peck starred in war pictures, which proved to be successful critically and financially. Yet despite the popularity of these films, war was another genre dominated by men and men alone. Usually, these films would keep women as only objects of affection, which was known as the “Love and War” subgenre. Rarely was a woman shown on the ground, in the thick of the fighting. One reason for the lack of representation was that it could be argued that women in real life were not allowed to join the armed services officially until 1948 when President Harry Truman signed the Integration, officially making it a permanent law that a woman could join any branch of the Armed Forces. However, the actions of Truman didn’t affect the stories that were told in Hollywood – they were men’s stories. In recent years, several films have been made depicting women’s roles with their boots on the ground, fighting alongside their male counterparts. Here is a look at three of those films and how closely they portray these women in the service.
Ridley Scott’s 1997 film, G.I. Jane, may be anything but perfect, but is still a stand-out movie featuring a female warrior’s story. It is an undeniable study that attempts to demonstrate the mental and physical brutality of one of the most intense military training programs ever conceived: US Navy SEALs. Demi Moore plays the role of Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil, a woman who voluntarily agrees to be a candidate for the Navy’s beginning stages of becoming gender-neutral. O’Neil must prove favorably that a woman can compete with the men in order for this to be achieved. The character of O’Neil herself may lack a depth that makes this undertaking as believable as it possibly could have been, though the physicality of Demi Moore is incredibly impressive. O’Neil undergoes a nonstop series of physically-demanding training exercises where she becomes more machine than human. O’Neil also demands that she be held to the same standards as the men, without any special treatment to make her time in training even more grueling. O’Neil experiences everything from actual physical injury to psychological abuse. Ultimately, O’Neil completes her training. The final act of the film ends with her garnishing complete and absolute respect from her commanding offer and other men from her unit.
In actuality, the US military began allowing women to serve in combat roles in 2015. Only about thirty-five percent of sailors who apply to the SWCC program manage to complete it. The first woman to fully complete the training is unknown at this time. She is a Naval Special Warfare combatant-craft crewman conducting classified missions. Her 37-week training was completed earlier this year. While this film tries to promote gender equality, it does so in a very superficial manner. There is no depth to Demi Moore’s character and a female soldier is a human being with frailties and strengths like anyone else. This film was more fodder for fun.
ZERO DARK THIRTY
Based on the raid in Pakistan where Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, Katheryn Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, is a sharply-crafted military thriller with actress Jessica Chastain at the helm. While the film is the most recent of the three I have selected to review, it still misses the mark for me in showing all sides of our protagonist. Chastain plays Maya Harris, a young C.I.A analyst and despite existing as a fictional character, she is a very well-developed as an ambitious military-intelligence operative, although there is perhaps not much a depth given to her personal life. As an intelligence analyst, she comes into the fold, stopping at nothing to finish her mission to find bin Laden, using every means at her disposal.
She is as calculated as she is thorough, gathering up a decade’s worth of detailed files on top-tier military targets in the Middle East. Chastain’s performance was met with critical acclaim that garnished her both an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win. Again, while I respect her ambitious portrayal, for me, there wasn’t an emotional backstory to dig into; however, what she accomplished, while being one of the few women in a room full of men, was impressive and ultimately led to the Pakistan raid where bin Laden was killed.
The film was met with its share of controversy over its use of torture sequences and improper use of classified military information. In all actuality, bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, by Seal Team Six in Abbottabad Pakistan, ending a ten-year manhunt. While this film is a fictionalized version of those events, it gets closer to featuring a three-dimensional woman at war. While GI Jane is more of a Superhero, Chastain seems more thoughtful, insightful and human.
COURAGE UNDER FIRE
Released in 1996, filmmaker Edward Zwick carefully constructs a layered portrait of a woman who gave her life to save those under her command and is posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Though this film was made over twenty years ago, actress Meg Ryan gives an honest and authentic portrayal as Captain Karen Walden, a tough-as-nails single mother who became a helicopter pilot during Desert Storm. There is an honesty and a depth to this protagonist that I hadn’t encountered in other war films featuring female leads.
During a battle engagement to save the lives of soldiers on the ground waiting to be rescued in Courage Under Fire, Captain Walden’s helicopter is abruptly shot down and crashes into active enemy territory. The story of what occurred between the time the helicopter crashed to the next day’s rescue is told from multiple points of view from the surviving members of her unit. One story makes her out to be a coward, another makes her out to be reckless and a danger to her squad. Denzel Washington plays the role of Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sterling who leads a thorough though complicated investigation. After hearing several versions of the incident, Sterling finds himself at a crossroads. His search to find the truth about what actually happened leads to a series of dramatic events until this truth is revealed.
Spoiler Alert: It is found that Karen had kept her unit together all through the night, despite being wounded by a gunshot to the stomach. Fighting continues into the morning and Karen urges her squad to leave without her, so she can provide cover long enough for them to be picked up by another helicopter. While all this is happening, an incoming airstrike occurs, killing Walden and the surrounding enemy insurgents. Throughout the investigation, Sterling takes a look into who Walden was, not only as a soldier who served her country, but also who she was as a person and more importantly, a woman. She is awarded the medal in the end, after a long and tiring search for the truth.
Though the film is a work of fiction, the story is told so authentically that it is a tribute to all who serve. In reality, the first Medal of Honor had been awarded to a woman named Mary Edwards Walker during the Civil War. Although, it was not combat-related–she was a physician. In 1917, her award was revoked and subsequently restored in 1977. She was the only woman to ever receive the medal. Stories like Courage Under Fire are important because they inspire others in the military of all genders and paint a fuller picture of a woman’s valor. We need more fleshed-out portrayals of women in the military to better understand their stories, challenges and service.
While the American Armed Forces have made significant progress allowing women to join their ranks, they still face gender discrimination, are the victims of sexual assault and still aren’t allowed in many roles that men take for granted. In keeping with the lack of parity in the real world, Hollywood still overwhelmingly lacks genuinely authentic representation of the women who do serve valiantly. Most war films are still centered around a battalion of men minimizing the achievements that women in the military have made and the barriers they have broken. We need much more representation, and authentic representation, of real-life stories of women soldiers in all areas of the military.