Unit – Corps – God – Country
How much critical thought can the military allow its rank and file? Certainly most orders must be followed unquestioningly; otherwise ultimately the entire Armed Services would collapse. But where do you draw the line? Does it matter how well soldiers know not only their military but also their civic duties? Does it matter whether trials against members of the military are handled by way of court-martials, or before a country’s ordinary (civil) courts?
I first saw A Few Good Men as an in-flight movie, and after the first couple of scenes I thought that for once they’d really picked the right kind of flick: A bit clichéd (yet another idle, unengaged lawyer being dragged into vigorously pursuing a case against his will), but good actors, a good director and a promising storyline.
Then the movie cut from the introductory scenes in Washington, D.C. to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Jack Nicholson (Colonel Nathan Jessup) inquired: “Who the fuck is PFC William T. Santiago?”
And suddenly I was all eyes and ears.
Director Rob Reiner and Nicholson’s costars describe on the movie’s DVD how from the first time Nicholson spoke this (his very first) line in rehearsal he had everybody’s attention; and the overall bar for a good performance immediately rose to new heights. Based on my own reaction, I believe them sight unseen. Or actually, not really “unseen,” as the result of Nicholson’s influence is there for everybody to watch: Never mind that he doesn’t actually have all that much screen time, his intensity as an actor and the personality of his character, Colonel Jessup, dominate this movie more than anything else; far beyond the now-famous final showdown with Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee. Nobody could have brought more power to the role of Jessup than Nicholson, no other actor made him a more complex figure, and nobody delivered his final speech so as to force you to think about the issues he (and this film) addresses; and that despite all the movie’s clichés: The reluctant lawyer turning out a courtroom genius (as lead counsel in a murder trial, barely a year out of law school and without any prior trial experience, no less), the son fighting to rid himself of a deceased superstar-father’s overbearing shadow, and the “redneck” background of the victim’s superior officer Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland, who nevertheless milks the role for all it’s worth).
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who adapted his own play, reportedly based the story’s premise – the attempted cover-up of a death resulting from an illegal pseudo-disciplinary action – on a real-life case that his sister, a lawyer, had come across in the JAG Corps. (Although even if I take his assertion at face value that assigning the matter to a junior lawyer without trial experience was part of the cover-up, I still don’t believe the real case continued the way it does here. But be that as it may.) Worse, the victim is a marine serving at “Gitmo,” the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, where any kind of tension assumes an entirely different dimension than in virtually any other location. In come Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and co-counsels Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) and Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), assigned to defend the two marines held responsible for Santiago’s death; Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and PFC Louden Downey (James Marshall), who claim to have acted on Kendrick’s orders to subject Santiago to a “code red,” an act of humiliating peer-punishment, after Santiago had gone outside the chain of command to rat on a fellow marine (none other than Dawson), attempting to obtain a transfer out of “Gitmo.” But while Kendrick sternly denies having given any such order and prosecuting attorney Captain Ross (Kevin Bacon) is ready to have the defendants’ entire company swear that Kendrick actually ordered them to leave Santiago alone, Kaffee and Co. believe their clients’ story – which ultimately leads them to Jessup himself, as it is unthinkable that the event should have occurred without his knowledge or even at his specific orders.
By the time of this movie’s production, Tom Cruise had made the part of the shallow youngster suddenly propelled into manhood one of his trademark characters (see, e.g., The Color of Money, Top Gun and Rain Man); nevertheless, he manages to (mostly) elevate Kaffee’s part above cardboard level. Demi Moore gives one of her strongest-ever performances as Commander Galloway, who would love to be lead counsel herself in accordance with the entitlements of her rank, but overcomes her disappointment to push Kaffee to a top-notch performance instead. Kevin Pollack’s, Kevin Bacon’s and J.T. Walsh (Jessup’s deputy Lt.Col. Markinson)’s performances are straight-laced enough to easily be overlooked, but they’re fine throughout and absolutely crucial foils for Kaffee, Galloway and Jessup; and so, vis-à-vis Dawson, is James Marshall’s shy, scared Downey, who is clearly in way over his head. The movie’s greatest surprise, however, is Wolfgang Bodison, who, although otherwise involved with the production, had never acted before being drafted by Rob Reiner solely on the basis of his physical appearance, which matched Dawson’s better than any established actor’s; and who gives a stunning performance as the young Lance Corporal who will rather be convicted of murder than take an unhonorable plea bargain, yet comes to understand the full complexity of his actions upon hearing the jury’s verdict.
“Unit – corps – God – country” is the code of honor according to which, Dawson tells Kaffee, the marines at “Gitmo” live their lives; and Colonel Jessup declares that under his command orders are followed “or people die,” and words like “honor,” “code” and “loyalty” to him are the backbone of a life spent defending freedom. Proud words for sure: But for the “code red,” but for the trespass over that invisible line between a legal and an immoral, illegal order they might well be justified. That line, however, exists, and is drawn even in a non-public court-martial. I’d like to believe that insofar at least, this movie gets it completely right.
Production Credits /
Cast and Crew
- Studio: Columbia Pictures (1992)
- Director: Rob Reiner
- Executive Producers: William S. Gilmore & Rachel Pfeffer
- Producers: Rob Reiner / Andrew Scheinman / David Brown
- Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
- Based on a play by: Aaron Sorkin
- Music: Marc Shaiman
- Cinematography / Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
- Jack Nicholson: Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, USMC
- Tom Cruise: Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, USN JAG Corps
- Demi Moore: Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway, USN JAG Corps
- Kevin Bacon: Captain Jack Ross, USMC, Judge Advocate Division
- Kiefer Sutherland: Lieutenant Jonathan Kendrick, USMC
- Kevin Pollak: Lieutenant Sam Weinberg, USN JAG Corps
- Wolfgang Bodison: Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, USMC
- James Marshall: PFC Louden Downey, USMC
- J.T. Walsh: Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Andrew Markinson, USMC
- J.A. Preston: Judge (Colonel) Randolph, USMC
- Noah Wyle: Corporal Jeffrey Owen Barnes, USMC
- Cuba Gooding Jr.: Corporal Carl Hammaker, USMC
- Matt Craven: Lieutenant Dave Spradling, USN JAG Corps
- John M. Jackson: Captain West, USN, JAG Corps
- Christopher Guest: Dr. (Commander) Stone, USN MC
- Michael DeLorenzo: PFC William T. Santiago, USMC
Major Awards and Honors
American Film Institute (AFI)
- 10 Top 10 (10 greatest US films in 10 classic genres) – Courtroom Dramas: No. 5
- Top 100 Movie Quotes – 29th: “You can’t handle the truth!” (Colonel Nathan R. Jessup)
National Board of Review Awards (1992)
- Best Supporting Actor: Jack Nicholson
ASCAP Awards (1994)
- Top Box Office Films: Marc Shaiman
MTV Movie Awards (1993)