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Basic: I could rewrite this film into something good, I'm sure of it

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

Seven soldiers go out on a training mission. Only two come back, one of them having been shot. What the heck happened out there? Captain Julia Osborne starts an investigation, but strangely, the two surviving soldiers won't talk.

Lucky for us, John Travolta is summoned to take over!

Unluckily for us, he isn't wearing platform shoes like in Battlefield Earth!

I found out about Basic in a post on Collie's Bestiary. I am not a John Travolta fan, and I am not particularly interested in military dramas, but this bit of her review intrigued me:

The stiff-necked military provost marshall, Captain Julia Osborne, is young and a bit new, and thinks things should be done by the book. [...] One would expect her to be an easy plot scapegoat, or simply the love interest - and yet she's not. Again, expectations are wonderfully tossed out the window: Osborne is quick on the uptake, physically adept and well-trained, has little trouble resisting the "hero's" romantic manipulations, and in the end unexpectedly figures out the underlying plotting - to the surprise of those very plotters.

The cliche of "woman who insists on playing by the rules, man who shows her how it's really done" is stale. In the first few minutes of this film, the filmmakers were slathering it on. Really, people, do we always have to wade through the woman-hating before we can enjoy the strong woman?

Osborne, played by Connie Nielsen, is overlooked, insulted, and treated like a naive child by her commanding officer and Travolta's character Hardy. I barely even liked her myself, though I sympathized with her frustration at being downgraded to Hardy's assistant.

As Hardy's behavior got a bit odd, though, I started to respect Osborne more. I couldn't figure out why Hardy was so willing to accept the first scenario that (kind of) made sense, and I appreciated Osborne's willingness to keep thinking and pointing out the discrepancies as two prisoners - both murder suspects - continue to tell differing stories about what went wrong in the jungle. Despite Hardy's arrogance and epic inappropriateness, he finally has to start accepting her as an equal. "Finally," I said to myself, "You jerk, thanks for getting with the program!"

Osborne changes somewhat to as the result of working with Hardy, but I wouldn't characterize it as a realization that he was right and she was wrong. Her insistence on proper procedure early in the film seems more about her being somewhat green, and lacking confidence, which she gains pretty rapidly as she takes the lead in figuring out the puzzle that she and Hardy have been handed.

By the time Osborne picks up a phone book and breaks her boyfriend's nose with it to force a confession, I was very, very impressed.

(Disclaimer: In reality, that would be horrible and totally wrong. But in a movie, it's pretty satisfying. That's what I like about movies.)

The main characters, by my count, number about 7. Osborne, her commanding officer, Hardy, the two prisoners, and two of the dead soldiers are white. Two are African-American men - one is basically a drill sergeant (do they call them that in the Army?), played by Samuel L. Jackson, and one is an enlisted man, played by Taye Diggs. There is also a Latina in the squad that the prisoners came from, but she doesn't get much character development. So as usual, I was left wishing for more casting diversity in the main roles. Two out of seven is just not that great, especially since Diggs's character gets less screen time than the two prisoners.

There's also the downside I mentioned earlier, where you have to get through a pile of sexist crap before Hardy starts to take Osborne seriously. You can definitely read the whole thing as a statement that women aren't entitled to respectful behavior unless they earn it by impressing men. It would have been lovely if they had done a film where the woman was just disrespected for being new, without the side order of sexual harassment.

This is where I often get into trouble rating films on Heroine Content, when I focus more on the end than on the beginning, and when I get sick of rating things poorly and decide to see the glass half full. I REALLY want to give this film three stars because of Osborne's coolness and Jackson's major role in the plot - removing one for the John Travolta jackassery and lack of diversity. Osborne won my heart, and I would have enjoyed seeing a sequel focusing on her next steps as part of her new team. But I don't believe that the way the film treats Osborne advances the cause of equality for women. We already have plenty of films that treat women this way, and it was completely unnecessary to the plot.

So it's two stars, for "So Close." But I recommend it!

3 Comments

ronathan said at April 15, 2010 5:26 PM:

Speaking of movies where John Travolta plays an asshole military guy who shows a female colleague how "its really done" while being a sexist pig the entire time, he played basically the exact same role in another movie, "The General's Daughter", that I would be really interested to see reviewed here. Not because of Travolta or his female counterpart (played by Madeline Stowe), but because I'm interested in your opinion of the actions of the title character, whose murder the two are investigating.

Patrick said at May 28, 2010 1:57 PM:

I actually (re-)watched this recently based on this review. I agree that Julia Osbourne was awesome, but the film... it seemed like they wanted to do Rashomon but didn't like that Rashomon didn't tell you what was really going on, so they pull a total surprise ending out of their... hats. Let's say hats.

I wish it would have been Osbourne's film / story, and I also wish Connie Nielsen would have showed up on the poster. I loved how Travolta went in with all his supposed experience and posturing, and it turns out he either cheated or Osbourne was right all along. I'm not sure the filmmakers noticed that, but it was great to see, nonetheless. If only it was a better movie.

Wow, you linked back to me -- thank you so much! I'm so pleased my review was interesting enough to encourage you to see the movie. I have to say, I can't disagree with your review either. I've gotten into trouble with well-meaning friends who wish I'd watch the movie "just for the story!" rather than "dragging all that feminist stuff into it." Sorry, doesn't work that way; can't turn my brain off.

Thanks again! :)

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