A Few Good Men (1992)

Directed by Rob Reiner


A Few Good Men seems like a classic.  Well, I guess it is a classic, but it’s also kind of hard to consider a movie from the 90’s a classic.  It’s great, very well-written with great performances and perfect ‘moments.’  It’s a long movie with enough time to space out in the middle for a bit, but damn, that ending.  If you haven’t seen this movie, you’ve heard the famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!” and Jesus Christ was that awesome.

This is a movie all about build up.  You know where it’s headed, and even though the early scenes, setting up important characters, feels a little cliche and too familiar, it all works for the final payoff.  This is a script (written by Aaron Sorkin) that sets up all the dominoes beautifully to be knocked over in the third act.  Some of these set ups feel a little tired, like Lt. Kaffee’s (Tom Cruise) being chased by his father’s ghost, but good lord, I was right there in the movie’s palm at the end.

Courtroom dramas will always have a cinematic appeal, just like how every other podcast isa true crime story nowadays.  In the courtroom, as they’re portrayed in movies, everyone is a performer.  A lawyer doesn’t just get the necessary information out of a witness, he or she has to attack them like in a boxing match.  Sometimes we don’t know what Kaffee or the opposing lawyer, Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) is up to until they finally make their point.  Each of these moments of questioning is a neat little scene.

So these types of stories allow for great, even over the top performances, and the courtroom drama plays out like a movie within a movie.  In A Few Good Men, we enter the courtroom with over an hour to go in the film.  Between these scenes, we get to watch Kaffee and his fellow lawyers, Galloway (Demi Moore) and Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) debrief and figure out the next course of action.  In a sense, they are like scriptwriters breaking down the next day’s scene.  They analyze the approaching witness and how best to question that person, and then in the next scene, we see that plan play out.

For the most part, we are right there with them.  We know what they’re going to do when they finally do it, though there is some mystery by the end, allowing for a little dramatic flourish as Kaffee sticks the landing.

I haven’t much mentioned Kaffee’s character or even the nature of the crime that landed us in court.  Kaffee is a great trial lawyer, we’re told, but his first instinct is to settle out of court, as he usually does.  This is the same type of set up for Sydney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982), a great courtroom drama about a disgraced lawyer.  The first step, in both cases, is to fight the urge to settle and go to court.

The case itself involves the apparent murder of a marine, Private William Santiago by two other marines, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and Private Louden Downey.  Whereas in The Verdict, Paul Newman represented someone who could only be described as a victim, Kaffee here defends the two marines charged with murder.

The film is firmly in the middle of the gray area.  We’re not supposed to empathize with Dawson or Downey, because they did do something despicable to a fellow marine that killed him.  Kaffee’s case, however, is centered on the power structure within the marines.  Dawson and Downey, he argues, were simply following orders first handed down by Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson).

Jessep is an intimidating figure, and I can’t think of anyone who could have played him better.  You need someone as legendary as Nicholson to portray a character whose presence (for most of the movie) is felt even when he’s not around.  Kaffee and company need to get Jessep to admit that he ordered a “Code Red,” which Dawson and Downey were following.  The problem is that they have no evidence, since we know that Jessep doctored the records and destroyed any other evidence.

So as the trial goes on, we know where Kaffee’s case ultimately lies.  Everything else is just filler until Jessep is subpoenaed, although it’s some great filler.  The heroes are heroic and the villains villainous.  Even Kaffee’s opponent, Jack Ross, is a friend outside of the court but a pretty hate-able villain within the court.

The best scene of the film is the questioning of Nathan Jessep.  Nicholson makes the man as vile as he should be, something the character even admits, but then you start to understand Jessep’s justification for his behavior, following his outburst and delivery of the famous “truth” line.  It’s just…. kind of mesmerizing.  The scene is set up so that you understand very clearly the stakes here.  Kaffee doesn’t have enough evidence to prove that Jessep doctored the files and did in fact order the Code Red, and if he were to make such a baseless accusation, his career could be ruined.

When, at first, his questioning doesn’t get very far, Kaffee is faced with a choice, to back down or to go even further with the questioning, thus risking his reputation.  It’s just such an awesome moment, with close ups of Kaffee looking to everyone for help.  Weinberg subtly shakes his head, ‘no,’ telling him to back off.  Galloway offers no indication of what she’s thinking, though you’re pretty sure she wants him to go for it, even though she had just warned him to be careful.  Then he looks at the two stoic marines whom he’s defending, and he decides to go for it.  It’s a great moment, more emotionally charged, perhaps in a slightly manipulative manner, because Colonel Jessep acts out of line, letting us justify our hatred of him.  He’s disrespectful, snotty and condescending, and by this time we already want to hate him.

When Kaffee returns to his seat for a glass of water, following the moment when he commands Jessep to return to the witness stand, he takes a sip from a trembling glass, his hand shaking with nervousness.  It’s both hilarious and oddly touching.  Tom Cruise’s characters are never all that vulnerable, especially in this stage of his career.  Whether it’s in Top GunDays of Thunder or The Color of Money, his characters are confident and often cocky.  There is no room for doubt.

But here, we see right through that cocky facade, and it only makes us root for him harder.  Goddamn, what a scene.

Everything really just feels like a prologue to this moment.  A Few Good Men is made by this courtroom scene, by the incredible performances, the Leone-esque close ups and the Lumet-like cinematic shots, particularly the final high-angle wide shot as Kaffee leaves the empty room and “the end” fades onscreen like an old forties film.

A Few Good Men was directed by Rob Reiner.  I think it’s safe to say that he’s a great director, but he’s hard to nail down.  This film felt like an homage to both The Verdict and Twelve Angry Men (both Lumet films), and some of his other works (This is Spinal TapThe Princess BrideStand By Me) range from broadly comedic to deeply personal coming of age stories.  From what I can tell, this is his first drama, and it’s sure as hell dramatic.  The film glosses over most of the grizzly details of the murder, shown briefly at the start of the film, and it favors glossy close ups of the beautiful cast in beautiful light.  For much of the film they might as well be models hitting their spot.

And maybe that’s my one criticism.  These all feel like actors more than real characters.  The marines’ job is to stand still at attention, but like a marine, Cruise and the other characters often just stand still and deliver a monologue or express some kind of reaction to someone else’s monologue.  Very little of this film feels real.  It just feels so cinematic.  Despite that and the slightly cheesy ending, I felt everything the movie wanted me to feel.  I just loved it, and I understand why it’s considered a classic.

It’s a great character movie, even if those characters feel somewhat two-dimensional.  It’s also the type of film you could just listen to, like a podcast.  Just about every scene hinges on what people say, not what they do.

I don’t have much of a closing argument, nothing dramatic to reveal or to finally get at.  This is just a well-made movie that can be a little on the nose at times and yet is so well-executed that it doesn’t matter.  It’s a movie about good actors delivering their lines in a tight close up.  They’re never very nuanced as people, but most of their story is told through the characters’ own performances as lawyers in the courtroom.  Even the characters are acting.  The poster might as well be of the characters posing for their headshots.

Next Up: It Comes at Night (2017), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), James White (2015)

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