One of my all-time favorite movies, this courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore, is, without a doubt, one of the finest movies ever made in Hollywood. Although released in the early 90’s, I got to catch this masterpiece sometime in the millennium year, on HBO, (I was I Pune at the time and HBO had just begun their movie channel in the country, so I was glued to the television set!)
A Few Good Men is the story of two US Marines, stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who have been accused of committing homicide, their victim… a fellow marine, PFC. (Private First Class), William Santiago. Tom Cruise is the rookie hotshot JAG lawyer assigned to the case with Demi Moore as the idealistic and Kevin Pollock as the realist co-counselors respectively. The case becomes very important when the defense realizes that the two marines are in fact the victims of a “Code-Red” (an unofficial and now illegal disciplinary action used within the US armed forces) gone wrong, which in fact was the true reason for their fellow-marine’s unforeseen death. Jack Nicholson is the Colonel at the base where the incident takes place and is the true issuer of the said Code-Red, which is willfully executed under the guidance of his sub-ordinate officer, Keifer Sutherland.
The movie opens at Guantanamo Bay Cuba, with the two marines shown entering the barracks room of William Santiago, stuffing his throat with a rag and taping his mouth with duct-tape, proceeding to shave his head. The focus then shifts to introductions of the protagonists of the movie, starting with Demi Moore’s character, a JAG lawyer from IA (Internal Affairs), who is already aware that the case does involve the issuance of a Code Red.
Tom Cruise’s opening scene shows him practicing with his softball team and his street-wise lawyer persona as he successfully negotiates his client’s sentence with the opposing counsel while he’s still batting! The chemistry when these two opposites meet for the first time is instantaneous, with Demi Moore making her dislike for Tom Cruise very obvious. Kevin Pollock plays Cruise’s good friend and colleague who keeps him abreast about the details of the case, and at times dishes out some much-needed advice as well. Jack Nicholson plays the egocentric Colonel Nathan Jessup, who does not believe in showing mercy to or protecting the weak.
A Few Good Men is a movie which is driven by the performances rather than the plot. The main story is the skeleton, but the characters are the flesh and blood. The onus of making a movie like this a success rests to a large extent on the actors and of course the director, for getting the best out of his artists. In that respect Rob Reiner has been more than successful.
The movie is based on a play written by Aaron Sorkin (Creator of hit shows like The West Wing) and in my view has been beautifully executed on celluloid by Rob Reiner with powerhouse performances by the main characters. Hence even though the movie is primarily a war of words, there isn’t a dull moment on screen. What works in favor of the movie is the fact that the director was able to get his actors to tap into the characters they were playing and successfully portray their emotions on screen.
The key performances are of course by Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. It’s commendable the way Cruise holds his ground with a veteran like Nicholson especially in the climactic court-room sequence.
Tom Cruise is often written off as the Hunk rather than the actor in many of his movies. A Few Good Men is possibly Cruise’s best work till date. His transformation from the street smart ambulance chaser to dedicated idealistic lawyer is a theme that runs parallel to the main story-line and is very subtle. The scene that captures this transformation is when Cruise is sitting at a bar and overhears a civilian lawyer narrating his ‘out of court’ settlement using technicalities. It becomes very evident that Cruise realizes that the law is not always about winning but about defending the innocent. This realization is reflected in the statement he makes the following morning at the plea hearing of the case, “Why is it that a lawyer with a track record of plea-bargaining gets a murder case? Is it so that it never sees the inside of a courtroom? ”
Nicholson nails his character as the egotistical Colonel controlling the troops at the Guantanamo Bay marine station. Although, the screen time Nicholson commands is less than Cruise. But Nicholson makes the most of his time in front of the camera with a fireball performance. The scene that gives the audience a feel of his persona is when he tells Cruise’s character, at the base in Cuba, to ask him for PFC William Santiago’s transfer orders “nicely”. Right from the start you feel like punching him in the face for his arrogance, which of course speaks volumes about his acting prowess.
The main highlight of the movie is of-course the array of courtroom scenes, wherein the defense and the prosecution are engaged in a war of words to prove their case. However, in this movie, most of the courtroom drama is the result of the cross-examinations and testaments between the defense (Cruise) and the witnesses.
One of the best ones is when Cruise points out that the definition of a Code-Red cannot be found in any Marine handbook, just like the location of the camp-mess hall, you just follow the others!
But without a doubt, the best scene is of-course the climactic show-down between Cruise and Nicholson as the former tries to get the egotistical Colonel to admit that he did in fact order the Code-Red, which resulted in the death of PFC William Santiago. This scene has probably attained cult status with countless movies and stand-up acts, parodying this classic moment in celluloid history. Here’s a brief snippet of the dialogue from that scene:
Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson): You want answers?
Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise): I think I’m entitled.
Col. Nathan R. Jessup: You want answers?
Daniel Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Nathan R. Jessup: You can’t handle the truth!
Another memorable and moving moment in the movie is between Tom Cruise and Kevin Pollock. When a hammered Cruise, after hearing the news that Colonel Markinson, their key witness has committed suicide, asks Pollock whether his father is proud of him, we get a glimpse of the love that Cruise has for his late father and his sorrow for losing him before he could see him proud of his achievement on graduating law school and joining the JAG corps.
Why do I like this movie? Well I guess I’m a sucker for court-room dramas. And when you couple that with phenomenal performances by some of the best names in the industry, who can resist!