Soldier’s Girl: Film Review

I can’t write an objective review of this film, I’m afraid. I’m too close to too many people involved with this film.

As many of you know, it’s a dramatic retelling of a romance between one of my best friends, Calpernia Addams, and a young Army private named Barry Winchell. It’s a love story, with fire, and flare, and passion, and tenderness, and in the end, a hatred that explodes into the most unspeakable violence. This film doesn’t shy away from any of it, either.

I’ll talk briefly about my overall take on the film. I first saw it in a packed hall at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I had just helped Calpernia finish proofing the galleys of her autobiography Mark 947, so I thought I was pretty well-prepared for the story I would see in the film. I was not.

I sat next to Calpernia, and to be honest, I’m not sure I could have sat through it if I were she. Imagine what it would be like to see yourself portrayed on screen, in an intimate way, with someone you cared for deeply, someone who was taken away from you by murderous bigots…it was a heartwrenching night, to watch this film surrounded by those closest to the events portrayed and the artists who worked to tell their stories with insight and honor. I felt I couldn’t do enough to be there for Calpernia that night. There was something very cathartic about it all, though, as the entire audience stood applauding at the end and joined in supporting her and in being there for her emotionally. I tend to be a pretty tough sell on emotional things, but seeing such an outpouring of support from people who were truly moved by this rare humanized portrayal of transgenderism got me glassy-eyed.

The film was directed by the legendary Frank Pierson, who was not afraid to show either the sexuality between the couple, or Barry’s violent death. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who also wrote Philadelphia, crafted a marvelous love story, and managed to discuss transgender themes with panache and sensitivity, and without getting too lurid. If you ask me, the best-written part in the film is the villain, Justin Fisher, who is complicated and calculating as the jealous and unstable roommate who goads another soldier into killing Barry. Shawn Hatosy does an incredible job bringing this Iago character to life.

A number of other artists took chances in this film, notably Troy Garity, who plays Barry. Troy plays Barry as a little slow and a little sweet, but over time, Troy conveyed a marvelous sense of how much complication there really is in a seemingly uncomplicated man like Barry. The love scenes exude real passion, and I am sure they will cause a lot of viewers to be uncomfortable because they are so challenging to conventional ideas of sexuality. There is a scene in Calpernia’s house, where Barry breaks down, saying he just wants to be happy. Troy’s performance in this scene is one of the most real and heartfelt expressions of emotion I’ve seen in a film in years. It’s refreshing to have an actor of his caliber take a role this challenging and controversial, without worrying what it will do to his career. I get the feeling Troy’s just getting started.

I suppose that my greatest disappointment in the film is the portrayal of Calpernia herself. Trying to see it objectively as a story, her character is the least nuanced of the three main characters. And as wonderfully as I feel the part was played by newcomer Lee Pace, this was once again another film where a transgender woman was played by a non-transgender man. This is not to slam Lee, who is especially good at capturing the pain and pathos of someone in the midst of a gender transformation. This film was important to make, but the fact that roles like these still go to actors outside the transgender community shows how far we still have to go. Those who know Calpernia know that she is quite lovely and soft-spoken. At the time the story occurred, she was still in the midst of things, but anyone who sees this portrayal and then sees the Calpernia I know will probably feel that this is a misrepresentation. Perhaps it’s good in a way, since it makes the film that much more challenging.

There are fascinating parallels between the straight drag of the military and the gay drag of the club where Calpernia performed. I wish more of that duality had been played up, but I am glad they spent a lot of time with the two characters away from their ridiculously gendered workplaces, having good, clean fun at cookouts, in the park, in bed…That is the true triumph of this film: a normalized relationship with the perfect combination of lust and love.

The climactic scenes are simply staggering, and I’ll leave it at that. Some critics thought that the writer had taken creative license, and that Barry was not killed over 4th of July weekend on the very night Calpernia won Miss Tennessee Entertainer of the Year. Sometimes the truth is more dramatic than any plot twist, because that’s exactly what happened. At any rate, this part of the film is an extraordinarily effective piece of storytelling, played out to Annie Lennox’s “Cold.”

In the aftermath of this tragedy, many people have rallied to make changes in military policy, notably the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, who continue to fight for GLBT rights in the military. I have also had the honor of meeting Barry’s mom and stepdad. To this day, they continue to fight for justice on behalf of their son and everyone else harmed by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Just this month, they have been able to help postpone the promotion of Major General Robert T. Clark, who was in charge of the base at the time Barry was murdered, and they continue to travel around the country speaking at VFW halls or wherever anyone will listen to their message of tolerance. When I think of American heroes I’ve had the honor of knowing, Pat and Wally Kutteles are right up there.

Beyond the important message this film carries, the process has opened doors to getting other stories with gender themes told. We have had a chance to spend time with the writer, the director, the producers, and the actors. We have been to their homes and vice versa, and we’ve had some very encouraging discussions about what else can be done. The film and the amazing artists involved have spurred Calpernia and me to work to improve media depictions of transgender people, and to try to get transgender stories told in our own words. The momentum is on the side of our community, and we will keep you posted as we move forward.

I hope you’ll all consider sending Calpernia a note or stopping by her bulletin board to thank her for being such an eloquent spokeswoman in the face of this tragedy. She’s been through a harrowing ordeal in the last few years, and she dealt with it all far better than I could have. I am very proud to know her.

Soldier’s Girl premieres on Showtime on Saturday May 31. Check your local listings for times.

See also:

Calpernia's page on Soldier's Girl

Showtime page on Soldier's Girl

May 2003 Advocate article