At one point while watching A Few Good Men (1992), I began to purposely confuse Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee with other military officers played by Tom Cruise in his career. After all, I did recently see Top Gun (1986), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) is also in my film library. They are all movies that deal with the armed forces, though admittedly quite different in their style. What is interchangeable is Tom Cruise because he acts pretty much the same in all three, hence the feigned confusion. With A Few Good Men, while it deals with conduct within the United States’ military, it is really a standard courtroom drama in brass and ribbon. That should not take away from its quality. There are some of the more classic lines in cinematic history in it, and it is worth viewing.
A Few Good Men begins with the untimely death of Marine Private First Class William T. Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo) on the Guantanamo military base in Cuba. It is the result of an unfortunate hazing ritual for Marines perceived as underperforming referred to throughout as a “Code Red.” When news of the incident reaches Washington, Navy Internal Affairs investigator Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) is keen to take the case. But because the military does not want too big of a show, they assign the freshly minted lawyer with the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office, Kaffee, as legal representation for the two soldiers charged in Santiago’s death, Private First Class Louden Downey (James Marshall) and Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison). Kaffee prides himself on his ability to settle matters before they can get to court, and he begins the process of negotiation before laying eyes on either Downey and Dawson. A deal would have been struck too had it not been for Galloway’s intervention, and she decides to make herself part of the case over Kaffee’s objections. Now they have the big deal everyone is trying to avoid, and Galloway and Kaffee, along with another JAG lawyer, Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), travel to Guantanamo to begin to piece together what happened. There they meet the officer in charge of the Marines on the base, Colonel Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson), a man steeped in Marine tradition and connections in high command in the military. The story he gives to Kaffee and his team as to the events leading to Santiago’s death are fishy from the start, particularly as we learn in a flashback before this interview that Jessep’s executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Andrew Markinson (J. T. Walsh), had urged that Santiago be transferred off the base before any of this could happen. Then again, who would dare question someone so highly decorated as Jessep? Despite believing that the case is doomed and is career suicide, Kaffee nonetheless enters a plea of not-guilty for Downey and Dawson, urged on by Galloway. What happens from here is classic courtroom drama, with Kaffee fighting a losing battle as he cannot actually prove that his clients were just following orders as they claim. All seems lost until Markinson surfaces, having gone into hiding shortly after the investigation began. He confirms that Jessep is false, but commits suicide before he is forced to testify. In desperation, Kaffee decides to put Jessep on the stand. Jessep deigns to attend, but considers the proceedings a farce. Kaffee uses Jessep’s arrogance to goad the so-called distinguished officer into admitting that he had personally ordered the Code Red, shortly after uttering the famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!” In spite of this stunning revelation, while being innocent of outright murder, Downey and Dawson are found guilty of conduct unbecoming of a United States Marine and are dishonorably discharged from the armed forces.
What follows this bittersweet court decision in A Few Good Men is a line that I actually like more than anything in Jessep’s maniacal rant while on the stand. As Dawson leaves the room, Kaffee says to him that one does not need a uniform to have honor. It is poignant bit of dialog, and a good reminder to those dealing with difficult circumstances. Honor goes along with one of the themes of the movie, which are codes. The Code Red is a separate issue, but Dawson basically describes his whole world when he states the four principles he lives by: his unit, the Marine Corps, God, and his country. It is a structure given him by the military, and it is their job to take recruits, break them down, and build them back up into people that order their lives in such a way that makes obedience second nature. It is discipline that keeps it all together, and this is a concept familiar to any monk or nun in a cloister. It is a different kind of rigor, but similar ideas. Thus when everything you know is taken away, it is natural for one to react dejectedly. Hence I love it when Kaffee gives him the gentle reminder at the end. There are so many ways to serve, whether it is your nation or God.
There is one rather annoying character in A Few Good Men, and that is Second Lieutenant Jonathan Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland). He takes all the parts of the code discussed in the previous paragraph and perverts them. One of the things he seems to mention in any scene he is in is the fact that he is a Christian, and the suggestion with him is that faith and blind obedience go hand-in-hand. God does not desire robots simply obeying His commands, and besides that is not Faith. Faith is a choice. Yesterday while speaking to my spiritual director, he reminded me that God wants us to ask Him questions. That is how communication works, and how a relationship is built, with anybody including God. So, sorry Hollywood, but you mischaracterize Faith yet again.
There are definitely worse movies you can see than A Few Good Men. I had actually not seen it all the way through, instead having caught bits and pieces, and of course the drama at the end. I am glad I now have it in total. It also holds up pretty well despite being almost thirty years old. There is a crazy thought, huh? In sum, see it for the great acting performances, if nothing else.