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Connection: screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin)
A Few Good Men (1992)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Bacon, J. T. Walsh, Kiefer Sutherland, James Marshall, Wolfgang Bodison, and Jack Nicholson
138 minutes, Rated R
My love for this movie has no boundaries.
I have lost track of how many times I have seen it. I’ve watched it for fun. I’ve watched it while depressed because it’s a “comfort movie”. I’ve watched it for classes. I’ve watched it with friends who mentioned that they had not seen it. I’ve watched it because it happened to be on cable and I inadvertently got sucked in. I watched it a few nights ago, in preparation for writing this article. I intended to take notes on the elements I definitely wanted to mention. Nary a note was taken. I was just as enthralled by it as I was when I saw it for the first time. So enthralled, in fact, that I forgot to even grab a pencil to jot down the aforementioned notes.
This is one of the few movies that I can think of in which I can find no flaw. For me, this film is perfect from beginning to end. It will never get old.
A Few Good Men is a military courtroom drama. Two Marines (played by James Marshall and Wolfgang Bodison) are put on trial for an attack on a fellow Marine. They broke in his barracks late at night, assaulted him, and now find themselves in a world of trouble when he accidentally dies. They are charged with murder. They claim innocence, citing the attack on their platoon-mate as a “Code Red”, a barbaric tradition in the Marine Corps where Marines keep lesser Marines in line with behavior that amounts to little more than fraternity hazing. Further, they claim that their willingness to participate in the Code Red was because they are Marines. Marines follow orders without question.
Yes, these two proud Marines were following orders when they attacked their compatriot. The victim had become an annoyance to the government in requesting transfers to a different base, with claims of poor health and inability to physically fulfill the requirements of his job. Further, he threatened blackmail against one of the assailants if his transfer was not granted. All of which, unfortunately for the two Marines, appears to be motive for their crime. But, again, they continue the claim that no crime was committed as they were acting under orders from their platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant Jonathan Kendrick (played by Kiefer Sutherland).
Enter Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee and Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (played by Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, respectively). They are Navy lawyers who believe that not only are their clients telling the truth, but that the order to commit this crime came from higher up than Kendrick. In fact, it probably came from Colonel Nathan Jessep (played by Jack Nicholson) who sits about as high up the military food chain as one can possibly get without becoming Commander in Chief. But how to prove it?
It occurred to me as I typed that synopsis that I probably didn’t really have to summarize this film. I mean, is there anyone among us who hasn’t seen it? Is there anyone among us who doesn’t like it?
The answer to that second question, I have found, is “yes.” I spent some time reading critical reviews of this movie in order to help myself actually pinpoint the minutiae of what I really love about it. I was surprised to see that, while the critic’s score of Rotten Tomatoes is a relatively high 82%, even the best reviews are only partially positive. Most critics accuse the film of being “banal”, even while praising the film for strong performances from its lead actors. Roger Ebert, in his review, chastises the film for “telegraphing”, stating that the movie’s climactic courtroom showdown, in which Jessep confesses to ordering his men into doing something immoral, loses half of its power because Kaffee announces two or three scenes prior to this that he’s going to go into the courtroom and . . . well, browbeat Jessep into confessing that he ordered his men into doing something immoral. I quote Ebert: “[This] is one of those movies that tells you what it’s going to do, does it, and then tells you what it did.” He goes on to say that A Few Good Men “doesn’t think the audience is very bright.”
How have I watched this movie half a million times and not noticed this?
Probably because I don’t believe that Ebert’s statement is true. I mean, I’m no dummy. I have a long history of writing prose, screenplays, and stage plays. I have an intimate relationship with the written word. If this movie was patronizing me, I would notice, right?
I have to concede that most of the critical complaints are accurate in their way. But this statement from Ebert seems like nitpicky complaining for the sake of being nitpicky. Yes, the movie telegraphs what Kaffee has set out to do. But that doesn’t mean that Kaffee can actually do it. An audience becomes invested in Kaffee’s struggle to fulfill the actions he has promised. The whole scene relies on a question of how instead of what.
In my opinion, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is brilliant. It does exactly what it sets out to do in telling a compelling story, but it also functions on many levels thematically. The obvious theme– the morality of following even the most dubious of orders– might be a tad bit heavy-handed, but there are other themes at play here. Closely connected to the first theme is an ongoing struggle with authority. Galloway outranks Kaffee and often uses it against him, usually in detriment to the entire case. Kendrick outranks the assailants and they accept that blindly as part of the Marine code. Jessep outranks them all and uses it for nefarious gain. In addition, there is an ongoing thematic struggle in the character of Kaffee, that of an innate desire for men to please their fathers. Other characters speak highly of Daniel’s father as an expert litigator. Daniel is chosen for this particular assignment because of his track record of plea bargaining early. To wit: it becomes clear to Daniel that he was chosen for this case because his superiors think him lazy and not a good enough lawyer to fight this particular battle in court. The government chooses this route because they have something to hide. Daniel’s father wouldn’t have stood for that, and neither will Daniel. The whole film plays out as a character arc in which we see Daniel Kaffee gradually gaining a backbone and taking the harder path because the harder path is the right thing to do.
As Daniel Kaffee, Tom Cruise could not be more perfectly cast. His characterization of this role is pitch perfect. And it’s the sort of role that we don’t see Tom Cruise take very often anymore. This movie was made before he became the poster boy for Scientology. Before he professed his love for Katie Holmes by jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch. Before he became his own stuntman in action-packed summer blockbusters. This was a Tom Cruise best known for being handsome and affable. A Tom Cruise with something to prove. A Tom Cruise who threw himself at dramatic roles in the hopes that one of them would stick.
This one sticks. And his very presence in this movie lends itself to another unspoken theme. An accidental theme that exists separately from content in the film. The theme is this: the Battle Of Star Power. A Few Good Men, ultimately, builds itself up to a showdown between New Hollywood (represented by good-looking, snarky, still-got-a-twinkle-in-his-eye Tom Cruise) and Old Hollywood. The latter is represented by very able hands. Jack Nicholson, who spent his entire career chewing scenery because he wasn’t as pretty and had to prove capability, has, for my money, never been as good in any movie he has appeared in as he is in A Few Good Men.
Nicholson can act circles around almost any co-star and has been since Easy Rider in 1969. A role like Jessep is nothing new for him. Nicholson has played so many sickos, psychos, and assholes in his career that it almost seems too obvious when he gets cast in roles like Jack Torrance (in The Shining) or The Joker (in Batman). But Nicholson has considerable ability as a thespian. He understands nuance and has a very deep bag of tricks to pull from. Again, Nathan Jessep is not much different from other sociopaths in Nicholson’s filmography except that, this time, Nicholson seems to take up more physical space. He seems larger than normal, taller, more robust. The little witness booth he sits in for testimony can barely contain his girth. The continual close-ups of his snarling face are barely wide enough to hold him back. He’s like an angry bulldog and when he screams “You’re goddamned right I did!” he is absolutely terrifying.
I am a big fan of Jack Nicholson, and it’s largely because of A Few Good Men.
It is not, however, only Cruise and Nicholson who deserve accolades for their performances in this film. I think Demi Moore is utterly sublime in her role as well. She plays frustration well, a common emotion for her character, a woman so passionate about the case that she often moves forward without thinking, usually to the detriment of the litigation. However, her performance is often cited by critics as being too lowkey. Many critics, including Ebert, have complained about the character of JoAnne Galloway as being a character of little substance. Some critics have gone so far as to say that her character is superfluous, and that it makes little difference, in the long run, whether her character is male or female. Her character, to some, appears to only be female so that Jack Nicholson has an adversary to hurl sexist invectives at. There may be some truth to this (it’s my understanding that her counterpart in Sorkin’s original stage play was a male), but I submit the following response: it is very refreshing to have an actress of Demi Moore’s beauty serve a purpose in a film that doesn’t revolve around her eventually sleeping with her male lead. With any other screenwriter at the helm, JoAnne and Daniel would have been entangled in a romantic relationship somewhere in the third reel. Sorkin keeps their companionship professional and, I think, it adds weight to her presence in the story.
This is the second film I’ve highlighted in the labyrinth that turns out to be not as critically-regarded as I would have thought they would be. But the critical reaction to this movie surprises me more than the reaction to The Ghost and the Darkness did. To me, A Few Good Men uses a well-paced script to present an examination of a true moral dilemma. Realizing that such things are, ultimately, a matter of opinion, I can’t help but feel that the critics are truly wrong about this film. They simply did not see the same film that I saw. For me, this movie presents believable characters and dynamic characters in a depiction of worthwhile means to an end. Or maybe . . . I can’t handle the truth.