Handling the Truth: A Few Good Men (1992)
When A Few Good Men was released during the holiday season of 1992, the buzz seemed to revolve around the cast. Back in the ‘90s, movie stars were the current equivalent of a white-hot intellectual property. A film that didn’t have car chases or superpowers could still pack the multiplex if it suggested to moviegoers that, because of the cast, the goods would be delivered. However, A Few Good Men is a blockbuster due to its quality. After watching this film more than twenty times, I am still dazzled by every frame. It’s unabashedly populist and mostly appeals to men who don’t really watch movies much. Similar to The Shawshank Redemption that came two years later, A Few Good Men is a classic ‘dad movie’ that somehow exceeds that label, delighting anyone that happens to give the film a chance.
A Few Good Men is about a lawyer finding his voice in a military legal system that lives by a code he doesn’t yet respect. If you only read the logline, one could surmise that this film could be a bit dense with the “code reds”, the hierarchy of Marines, and the chemical reaction to lactic acidosis… but those are just the parts of an engine that runs on masterful execution. The film opens with an action sequence (and that’s being generous) in which two young Marines perform a code red on a fellow cadet, inadvertently killing him; and the rest of the film is mostly characters in a room, talking about how and why the opening sequence happened in the first place. The magic of the film is that every single one of these scenes are so fun to watch. Once these scenes get burned into your memory, the film’s true star eventually turns out to be screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, delivering a knockout script (based off his stage play) that crackles with remarkably memorable dialogue. Is this the most quotable courtroom drama ever? I would agree with that every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Functioning as a traditional courtroom drama, the plot centers on Danny Kaffee (Tom Cruise), JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), and Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) in their effort to prove that their clients, two young Marines, only killed a fellow Marine because they were ordered to by Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson). What makes the dramatic action of every scene involving Col. Jessep work so well is because he is beyond reproach. When Kaffee, a smart-mouthed military lawyer who has never appeared in a courtroom, flies down to Cuba to meet with him and asks for a transfer order (proof that the Colonel isn’t lying,) Jessep owns him with a deep dish of old school masculinity. When he looks Cruise in the eyes and says, “You’re going to have to ask me nicely…”, it’s extremely watchable because Jessep seems to revel in humiliating Kaffee, instantly framing himself as the lovable villain with problematic views on almost everything. While Cruise spends a lot of the film as a punching bag, representing what’s wrong with lawyers and entitled white men who rarely experience true hardships, he turns in some of the best work of his career in a largely underrated role.
Another aspect of the film that makes this film feel so accessible is the direction by Rob Reiner. To say that Reiner was coming off a hot streak at the time is a massive understatement. His previous four films were Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and Misery (and this was only eight years after This Is Spinal Tap). Because of his clout, Reiner was able to pull in one of the most impressive supporting casts of all-time, including my favorite performances by J.T. Walsh, Kevin Pollak, and Kevin Bacon. Rob Reiner’s comic sensibility enhances the film greatly — the engaging tone never fades when the plot of film needs to get heavy into the dense discussion of criminal court documents. Is Tom Cruise completely watchable as he paces around his apartment with a baseball bat and Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak are rolling their eyes at him? Absolutely. And while it sometimes feels a bit pandering at times, Reiner uses foreshadowing before the big scenes with a moody establishing shot that allows the viewer to prepare for a tonal shift.
Any discussion of A Few Good Men is simply incomplete until the final courtroom scene is mentioned. Simply put — its third act looms so heavy that the rest of the film feels dangerously close to becoming an afterthought. Roger Ebert even criticized the film for not thinking the audience is very bright, chastising a scene in which Kaffee’s legal team strategizes for the climatic moment in which Jessep will be brought onto the stand and Kaffee will get him to confess, telegraphing exactly what’s going to happen. I think this dramatic choice actually works, due to the fact that this is a popcorn flick with a third act that hinges upon psychological manipulation. The idea that Jessep admits to ordering the ‘code red’ on the witness stand isn’t a turn that necessitates a big reveal; the courtroom sequence works more like a heist set piece, where Kaffee works up Jessep’s hubris in a spectacular moment of blockbuster filmmaking.
A Few Good Men is one of those films feels like a great Neil Simon play. It doesn’t strive to be a complicated masterwork that challenges any cinephile that dares to uncover its thematic riddles. Instead, A Few Good Men tackles its specific genre by doing everything right — and in the process, capturing the hearts of fathers all over the world.