Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.
Once upon a time, Rob Reiner was one of the best directors working. A Few Good Men comes right at the end of that period in his career—right before he directed the colossal stinkbomb North, as a matter of fact. A Few Good Men has a lot going for it. In addition to a top-of-the-line cast, including Jack Nicholson in one of his best and most iconic roles, it also has a screenplay from Aaron Sorkin at his best. This is a smart film. It’s one I’ve seen multiple times before, and settling into it today was like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers. I always remember that I like this film. I don’t always remember how beautifully written it is.
At the military base in Guantanamo Bay, two soldiers unexpectedly attack another soldier. Cut to Washington D.C. where Lieutenant JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) brings the incident to the attention of her superiors. The soldier who was attacked died in the attack. While it seems like a cut and dried case, it is her opinion that it sounds like a “code red,” an unofficial disciplinary action. She advocates for the case to come to trial and a lawyer be assigned to the two soldiers, Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Louden Downey (James Marshall).
Enter Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), son of one of the great trial lawyers in American jurisprudence and relatively recent graduate from Harvard. Kaffee has entered the Navy to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he isn’t much of a trial lawyer. In fact, he plea bargains everything and is far more interested in his softball team than in actually entering a courtroom. He is assigned the case and given Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) as an assistant, and soon begins the investigation.
This investigation brings a number of important players into the mix. First is Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon), the prosecuting lawyer. Ross is a friend of Kaffee despite their positions in the upcoming trial, and he is more than willing to cut a deal on the futures of Dawson and Downey. While Kaffee is tempted, he still heads down to Gitmo to investigate. It is here that he meets the other three important players for this story. The direct commander of the soldiers on trial is the aggressively military Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland); the base’s XO is Markinson (J.T. Walsh). The whole base is overseen by Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson), an up-and-comer on the scene, recently tapped for a major post after his time at Gitmo.
A Few Good Men doesn’t shirk on the trial part of the film. The trial starts with well over half of the running time to go. We get plenty of courtroom theatrics and the case goes back and forth. Both sides make points. Things get strange when Markinson suddenly disappears, then reappears, telling Kaffee that everything he’s heard from Kendrick and Jessup have been lies. But before Kaffee can put Markinson on the stand, Markinson kills himself, setting up the final day in court, which is absolutely the most famous moment in the film.
A Few Good Men trades entirely on its screenplay and the performances. Underneath all of this is a complicated but not mind-blowingly devious legal battle. Where this film shines is in the characters and the dialogue, not the plot. The plot is just engaging enough to be worth watching. It’s the sharp writing and the fully realized people on screen that keeps the audience in its collective seat.
Tom Cruise plays the stereotypical Tom Cruise character here. He’s just a step away from Maverick in Top Gun, and not a full step. He’s brash, he’s conceited, he’s sure of his abilities, and he’s really good at what he does. My favorite character in the film is Lt. Weinberg, although I’ll admit that a big part of that is that I love Kevin Pollack in films like this one. Pollack is fun to watch.
The real star here, though, is Jack Nicholson, who turns in one of the great performances of a career filled with them. He didn’t win Best Supporting Actor for this role, but it was a well-earned nomination for the man. Jessup is a stereotype, but Nicholson plays him as more than just a stereotype. It’s a good role improved by a near-perfect performance.
I probably like this movie more than I should. This was my introduction to Aaron Sorkin, who I think is a damn fine writer. He has an ear for realistic dialogue, which is really the strongest point of this film. Better, it holds up extremely well. A remade version might feature cell phones and rely less on fax machines, but this is a story that hasn’t lost a beat in 22 years.
Why to watch A Few Good Men: One of the best courtroom screenplays going.
Why not to watch: Because this is the last time Rob Reiner did anything worth watching.