A Few Good Men: And one great writer

With the much-anticipated The Social Network dropping in theaters this Friday, I thought it appropriate to look back on the career of the inimitable writer Aaron Sorkin.  A comprehensive piece will be arriving later this week, but for now, let’s review a few of his most prominent films.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

A Few Good Men is one of those movies, like Remember the Titans, that runs so smoothly on the strength of a well-written script and solid acting that you don’t realize in retrospect how standard its structure is.  It is immensely enjoyable and can be watched a few times without losing its luster, so long as you don’t expect it to change the world.  It works better than a movie like Titans because it doesn’t concern such a retread theme and because the writing is stronger.

At the beginning of the movie, two Marines, Pfc. Louden Downey and Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson (James Marshall and Wolfgang Bodison) enter the barracks of Pfc. William Santiago, stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and assault him.  Hours later he is pronounced dead, presumably from poison that was on a rag stuffed down his mouth.  Santiago had recently petitioned base commander Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) for a transfer off the base; for this, he was willing to rat out Dawson for illegally firing a round across the fence line into Cuba.

The question the Navy doesn’t want discovered is whether the two Marines were sent to Santiago’s room on someone’s orders, to perform a “code red,” an informal procedure of punishing a wayward member of a platoon.  In the hopes that the case is buried, they assign defense of the Marines to a young, carefree lawyer, Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), who lives in the shadow of his late, extremely successful father and has a track record for plea bargains.  Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore), however, is determined to go deeper, and she refuses to let Kaffee give up on the case.

The back-story emerges, slowly, which I like, and the blame frequently shifts parties.  Do we blame the Marines for their actions?  Santiago for ignoring the proper chain of command in selling out a peer?  Jessup, who was in charge of everyone involved?  Or what about his right-hand man, who may have delivered his order to attack Santiago?  Did Santiago even die as a result of the attack or because of a pre-existing condition?  Even at the end, there is no definitive answer: everyone had a hand in the incident, and you are left to determine the proportions of guilt for yourself.

Predictability comes, though, in the film’s procedure.  The bulk of the time is spent either in the courtroom or in Daniel’s apartment, where he and Joanne and assistant counsel Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) prepare the defense.  Unfortunately, I have to agree with Roger Ebert, who noted that the movie makes its ending even more predictable because it telegraphs it: Daniel announces ahead of time what their strategy is for questioning Jessup on the stand.  The climactic Cruise vs. Nicholson showdown, riveting already, could have been even better if we didn’t know exactly what was coming.  Sadly, as Ebert noted, “We are not allowed the pleasure of discovering Cruise’s strategy for ourselves, and Nicholson’s behavior seems scripted and inevitable, and is robbed of shock value.”

I don’t share all of Ebert’s negativity about the film, though, thanks to its other merits, notably its good pacing and skillful handling of the rising action.  Sharp writing abounds (no surprise given that Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay based on his own play).  When Joanne tells Daniel he isn’t right for the job, he says, “You don’t know me.  Normally it would take someone hours to discover I’m not fit for the defense.”  And Nicholson’s concluding monologue on the stand, though foreshadowed too explicitly, is positively electric.

Some small details work, while some don’t.  The dead father that Cruise’s character has to live up to has been around the block a lot, but it’s not overplayed and does add depth.  The movie wins points with me for not having Daniel and Joanne character become attached romantically, which seemed all-too-obvious thanks to their good looks and rocky beginning.  Finally, a couple of the courtroom moments seemed a little fake in that they would never stand in real life, but that’s relatively insignificant.

The acting is reliable on all fronts—down to Kevin Bacon as the lead attorney for the prosecution, but most especially the lead actors.  Cruise’s charismatic-when-he-wants-to be Daniel who discovers the joy in doing the right thing, and Nicholson’s widely-praised Jessup sneers and snarls and cuts through his words with a heartless intensity that you can feel from your living room.

A Few Good Men doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a great yarn and asks an important question: When, if ever, can your conscience allow you to override orders from a superior as a member of the United States military?  Seeing this movie might cause you to think about that a little deeper.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

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