A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, 1992)

07May11

Tom Cruise (Lt. Daniel Kaffee), Demi Moore Lt. Commander Joanna Galloway), Jack Nicholson (Col. Nathan R. Jessep), Kevin Bacon (Capt. Jack Ross), Kiefer Sutherland (Lt. Jonathan Kendrick), Kevin Pollak (Lt. Sam Weinberg). Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Rob Reiner. Rating: 15. Running time: 138 minutes.

If the lawyer’s life is really as A Few Good Men makes it out to be, then perhaps the rest of us are in the wrong line of work. We have a courtroom drama here with a delightfully young Tom Cruise in the driving seat, and the result is the most American of films doing its best to drown us in the victory of justice, the intelligence of its barrister and the omnipresence of the virtue of honour.

It succeeds. At times it indeed falls sloppy in its television-apt use of music, its occasionally poor dialogue fishing too hard for emotions and its commitment to filling in all the gaps in the story’s logic just incase we’re incapable of simple inference. If you’re annoyed when films deliberately aim to move your spirit and it’s obvious that’s what they are seeking, then A Few Good Men will undoubtedly enrage you at times. But ultimately such details are like 1 millimetre blotches on a wall-sized canvas. This is, all in all, a show of magnificent acting, and it’s also a masterpiece in invoking awe.

Cruise plays Kaffee, a man who in the space of two hours steps out of his father’s looming shadow and, if you’ll forgive the hyperbole, finds his soul. If that sounds dreadful then rest assured it’s my fault and not the film’s. The only reason a courtcase transpires here is because the two Marines accused of murder – but insist they only followed orders – refuse the prosecution’s offer of a plea bargain where they confess involuntary manslaughter and leave prison in 6 months’ time honourably discharged. They would rather risk the prospect of life imprisonment than confess to a crime they did not commit, and thus themselves ensure the end of their life in the marines. Noble, or stupid? Probably both, actually. It’s easy to understand Kaffee’s reaction of outright shock that they could risk such punishment for the sake of a moralistic stand, but imagining having to confess ‘guilty’ and play the system in a way so untrue to yourself is equally hard to just brush aside.

Either way, the result is Kaffee’s first case that goes to court, and his battle – that’s he’s obviously destined to win – is to show that despite all appearances to the contrary, things are not as they seem. We already know it, and we even know the jury will end up knowing it, but knowing in advance that your favourite sports team are going to trash their opposition doesn’t detract from the value of watching it happen. A Few Good Men thus trades the pleasures of uncertainty and discovery for the joys inherent in the certainty of knowing good will unfold before your eyes. We thus watch Cruise, with the help of the equally enjoyably young Demi Moore, dare to question the integrity of a high ranking Colonel with the most arrogant of attitudes. This also happens to be Jack Nicholson, and he captures perfectly the perspective of a man who, in virtue of being responsible for his nation’s security, clearly thinks he should be entitled to the nickname King Kong. Anyone else reaping the benefits of his work is a lesser being, and if you’re bold enough to not blindly accept his methods of work then be prepared: you’re in for the verbal fight of your life.

This is the man who needs to confess that he gave the orders if Kaffee’s clients are to avoid injustice, and the moment they come head to head in court is quite inevitably the film’s raison d’être. Here’s where Sorkin shows signs of what he’s capable of as a script writer. You lose count of the number of lines you could cherish and listen to being delivered again and again. Both Cruise and Nicholson deliver one of their finest moments, and that’s enough reason to love A Few Good Men on its own.

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