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A Few Good Men

A Few Good Men

By Kyle Barrett • January 18th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Columbia Pictures

Original release: December 11th, 1992
Running time: 138 minutes

Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack, J.T. Walsh

A Few Good Men

We’re all passive, in a way. However, when you meet someone who’s focused and determined and believes in what they’re doing they can shake you to your core. Rob Reiner explores this in A Few Good Men.

Reiner’s an odd director. We’re familiar with his comedies – This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and When Harry Met Sally (1989) – both of which were hits and beloved by many. He gave us Stand By Me (1986), a comedy-drama about male childhood friendship. He also gave us the underrated Misery (1990) to help prove that he wasn’t a one-genre director. To further demonstrate his range, he took on Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of his play A Few Good Men, and it’s one of his best films.

After a marine dies, two fellow marines Louden Downey (James Marshall) and Harold W. Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) are arrested on suspicion of murder. Young, suave military lawyer Daniel Kaffe (Tom Cruise) is teamed up with ambitious JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) to defend the suspects who claim they were acting under orders from their platoon commander.

Courtroom dramas are a genre unto themselves. I remember watching 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) where the main action takes place in the jury’s room and we barely see the court yet we class this in the same vein as, say, Anatomy Of A Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959). We’re so familiar with courtroom dramas, either from film or TV, that we can pretty much work out the story before it starts. There’s a seemingly innocent man that a flawed lawyer has to defend and it either turns out the defendant is actually guilty or indeed innocent. We know the setup, we’ve seen it played out numerous times but why do we keep watching them? The characters have to be solid enough to guide us through the tedious process of a courtroom procedural. Sorkin was able to create a courtroom drama in a world we’re too unfamiliar with: a court martial. The procedure of conducting a court martial has a certain mystery about it that makes it stand out against other courtroom dramas. It’s a different way of doing things and it’s no surprise that the film was a hit.

A Few Good Men

On first watch, I remember Kaffe really annoying me but I slowly grew to respect him, just as Dawson does. Reiner is able to draw us in to the characters who are complex in their own way. Kaffe’s a hotshot, young lawyer who’s good at getting defendants to take deals rather than go to court. He’s never stepped foot into a courtroom before. When this case is presented to him, he thinks he can convince the suspects to take a deal so he doesn’t have to go to trial.

Galloway, on the other hand, believes strongly in the suspects’ innocence and thinks they have a case. After a friction between the two, they get to work on the trial with the help of Kaffe’s lawyer friend Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak). As they start looking into the case, Kaffe’s confidence in being able to handle an actual trial rises until he comes face to face with the colonel of the base where the marines are situated, Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson). He runs the base tightly and doesn’t take sloppiness lightly. Kaffe isn’t prepared to go up against this force and as more and A Few Good Menmore allegations emerge of an illegal discipline procedure, known as a ‘Code Red’, being carried out on Jessop’s base, Kaffe final takes his stab at bringing down the corrupt colonel in a sensational climax.

The performances are solid all around. After setting up Galloway, Moore’s given much to do at the beginning but then her character is there just to be there. This is Cruise’s show and he really does play Kaffe with a lot of complexity and nuance that it becomes one of his best roles. Nicholson, of course, steals the show and the line, “You can’t handle the truth!” has become part of popular culture. He’s a driven man who wants the best from his marines, no matter what the cost. He cares about his country but Nicholson plays him like a man who’s using his patriotism as an excuse to do whatever he wants. Pollak gives great support but his character is underdeveloped and he’s just the background help. Marshall and Bodison are effective as the young, determined marines. We spend little time with them, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to get to know or fully care about them. Kevin Bacon, one of the underrated stars going today, is great as the prosecutor Jack Ross. Ross cares about the law and even has sympathy for the defendants. Bacon balances Ross’s tough legal tactics with affability in his scenes with Cruise as they inform each other of where they are on the case.

We can be grateful that there isn’t a developed romance between Cruise and Moore, which would’ve been too forced and too much for this film. It’s somewhat refreshing that a big picture like this didn’t rely too much on the most granted conventions of a Hollywood production: a romance between a man and a woman. It’s not a perfect film, we get little time with some important characters and others are too thin to be developed, but with Cruise and Nicholson going head-to-head, it’s worth watching it for that alone.

A Few Good Men

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on digital film-making and current developments within national cinemas. He also writes and directs several short films and is currently working on the web series Ferocious Bloodaxe.

He also lectures and tutors on practical filmmaking classes.

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