A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)
Previously we did THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998)
A FEW GOOD MEN (1992) is mainly famous for two things. The first is that astonishing scene at the end in which Jack Nicholson makes yet another contribution to his immortal cinematic legacy by telling a young and contemptuous lawyer “You can’t handle the truth!”. The second is that it launched Aaron Sorkin as among the most celebrated and distinctive mainstream screen writers in modern Hollywood.
On the scene – let’s get that out of the way first. Everyone knows it, and I have little to add beyond telling you that it remains one of my favourite fight sequences in film. A masterclass in momentum and conflict, it plays like the final round of a (movie) boxing match. Yes, it’s Nicholson’s scene, sitting in the stand like it’s his throne, dispatching this insolent insurgent with blistering and uncompromising power. But fuck, Cruise is great here too. These days he seems to mine his jollies by hanging off the side of planes, perhaps realising that the age of the movie star has given way to the franchise, but this is a good reminder of what a good actor he is. Where many might have wilted in the face of Nicholson firing out Sorkin’s best work, Cruise instead rises up to the same level, matching demagoguery with humanity, and patiently (nervously) waiting for the bigger and stronger bully to open up his body and deliver a decisive blow from a position of perceived weakness.
Watch how he steps forward on the line “No sir…”.
Let me come back to this scene.
What is less famous is the movie’s obsession with belief. While religion itself only makes a couple of discreet cameos, the movie – and Sorkin’s own play upon which it was based – is soaked in group and individual philosophy. All the major players are defined by it. Their arcs are tracked by it. They are elevated by it or destroyed by it.
The most obvious example of this is Nathan Jessep. Two marines stand trial for murder because of an order he gave to have them administer a “code red” to an under performing (tattle tale) comrade of theirs. Even after that marine’s death, the Colonel fervently believes that the work he is doing transcends the laws of even his own superiors. When asked if he has followed the directive to cease “code red” attacks on his base, he dismisses the author as having never “faced the working end of a Soviet made Cuban AK-47 assault rifle”. He knows better. His men know better. In fact, as evidenced in the clip above, any man or woman who doesn’t stand post in his defence of freedom is simply not entitled to an opinion.
His cult is strong. It is belief in Jessep and his code that causes Keifer Sutherland’s Lt. Kendrick to place Jessep’s authority along side that of God. And as if that wasn’t fucked up enough, he does this while on the stand – about to lie under oath as to how events unfolded that night. Where Kendrick suspends his own critical thinking for Jessep’s mission, veteran counter intelligence officer Matthew Markinson is torn apart by it. Belief in the cause meets his own human morality and that war claims two lives: the victim Markinson couldn’t save and his own. Markinson hides and then kills himself before he is forced to line up against Jessep. Still the cultist, he does so in full dress uniform.
If Jessep and his flock are driven by the power of devotion, Kaffee is assigned the case because he has no philosophy. No point of view. No principles. Famed for plea bargaining cases from the comfort of his batting cage, he’s seen as an easy way to hide this potentially explosive murder investigation. The son of “one of the greatest trial lawyers who ever lived” Kaffee beats and twists the bureaucratic process to make sure he never ends up in a court room – and is never forced to make an actual argument.
The specter-of-Daddy was a tired trope even in 1992, which is probably why Sorkin is so careful when he deploys it. When he does, it’s effective. Most notably when Kaffee meets Nicholson’s Nathan Jessep for the first time, during a cordial investigation process. Jessep recognises the surname and informs the group that Kaffee senior had been a formidable advocate for the rights of black children to attend the same school as the white kids. We see it now, Kaffee senior was a warrior of principle while his son is afraid to stand for anything. It’s something that one of the defendants – Lance Corporal Downey – picks up on right away.
Kaffee: Cutie-pie shit will not win you a place in my heart, Corporal. I get paid no matter how much time you spend in jail.
Dawson: Yes sir, I know you do, sir.
Dawson is our weathervane for Kaffee’s arc. A company man through and through, Dawson’s disgust at Kaffee’s lack of “code” is manifested in a number of ways, but most strikingly, a refusal to salute when Kaffee leaves the room.
Having secured enough leverage to provide his two clients an astonishingly favourable deal (which will once again allow his to escape a court room) Kaffee is incensed when they won’t take it. And why won’t they? Because it violates their code:
Unit. Corps. God. Country.
It’s a position so alien to Kaffee that he walks off the case. But while Jessep’s military rank and personal cult ensures he is surrounded by subordinates and followers, Kaffee is flanked by peers. Demi Moore’s officious Jo Gallaway, and Kevin Pollock’s weary journeyman Sam Weinberg. Gallaway’s own belief in the law was so troublesome to publicity-shy administrators, she was removed from the case before she even got it. Yet she clings to it through Kaffeee, fanning the flames of a belief in an argument she sees flickering inside him.
The first time she sees it is when, in Cuba, Kaffee casually asks Jessep for a copy of the transfer order Jessep claims to have signed to have the young victim transferred off the base. It appears benign at first, but the subtle challenge Kaffee deploys is immediately detected by the Colonel. Jessep doesn’t appreciate the insubordination.
Kaffee stays on the case and goes to court for the first time in his career.
Sorkin is building two main arcs here. With Kaffee, the propulsive power of belief and how it can inspire and push us to greatness. With Jessep and Markinson, the dangers of faith and how it can mess with our morals and poison our souls. Sorkin picked a good case to make it, best summed up when Sam Weinberg has the following exchange with Kaffee:
Weinberg: I believe every word of their story and I think they ought to go to jail for the rest of their lives.
As Kevin Bacon’s Jack Ross prosecutor states: These two marines killed a man. Be it by accident or design, orders or not, they caused his death. An ambiguous case is essential to make Kaffee’s arc convincing. It’s needed to make his decision to finally go to court feel like a leap of faith.
Which takes us back to that last scene. Kaffee has spent the trial convincing the jurors that the belief system (in the form of military command) was so strong that there could be no doubt that issued orders MUST be followed. That the accused marines, Dawson and Downey, were unable refuse. Kaffee knows he needs the monstrous Jessep to admit that he did indeed issue the order, even though the very attempt to make him do so, could result in his own court martial.
It works of course. Kaffee, in that scene, baits Jessep into a passionate sermon on why he is right and the world is wrong. The belief in what he is doing being so strong that it doesn’t even occur to him that he might be accused of a crime. The arrogance of belief.
Kaffee’s arc is complete. “I’m an officer in the United States Navy. And you’re under arrest you son of a bitch”. A line designed to meet Jessep on his own terms -rank and status. A line designed to show Kaffee found something to believe in.
As the court room clears, Kaffee tells Dawson that he doesn’t need to have a badge on his arm to have honour. Dawson reciprocates the gesture with a sincere salute. “There’s an officer on deck”. Dawson too knows his belief has tampered with his morals.
Rob Reiner has a few classics under his belt (THIS IS SPINAL TAP being the funniest film I have ever seen) but having seen the play, this still feels very much a Sorkin movie. He once said he likes to write “good people trying to be great people” and it’s true. But I would offer counter point to that – he also writes “great people failing to be good people”. This has been evident in his recent work with THE SOCIAL NETWORK and STEVE JOBS, but never more so than here – where the arrogance of genius causes Colonel Jessep to lose right and wrong in the depths of duty.
You can discuss this movie over in our forum
- I’m 39, and I still have an imaginary friend, and it’s Superman - May 6, 2020
- Welcome to Video Multiverse. Do you miss movies as much as us? - May 4, 2020
- Margot Kidder was humanity - May 14, 2018