A Few Good Men (1993)

Directed by Rob Reiner

“I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me, so don’t think for one second that you can come down here, flash a badge, and make me nervous.”

The Disc

Another throwback to the early days of DVD, so pretty bare bones – just a trailer, nothing else.

“YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE EXTRAS!”

Sorry.

Why Did I Get This?

I have no recollection of buying this, but it’s fair to assume it was to see what all the fuss about the ‘truth handling’ scene was all about.

Nicholson’s usually a good watch, Cruise too (though personally I think his films are getting better as he gets older), I’ve no strong feelings either way about Demi Moore’s career – she’s fine, I guess, but I don’t have the knowledge of experience – and there’s a hell of a cast in this.

Also, it’s directed by Rob Reiner! A decade or so after This Is Spinal Tap and a few years after Stand By Me, I never really saw this as a great fit but it works.

Also, also – it’s written by Aaron Sorkin and based on his play. I watched The West Wing for the first time during lockdown and it blew me away, though I was a fan of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip back in the day, so that might be a reason behind this purchase. Either way, I’m keen to revisit this and see if his style was as obvious back then.

But enough of my yakkin’, let’s boogie…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will cover the film from start to finish in depth, so it’s pretty long, and you can expect spoilers below – scroll straight to the next heading to avoid them!

We open on Guantanamo Bay military base (before it had the reputation it’s got now), bathed in a Michael Bay-esque orange sunset and ominous music while two Marines tape a rag into the mouth of a young Private and hogtie him in his room. Grim.

Suddenly, we’re watching some elaborate military marching band and weapons display in a very different, very neat, green location – I don’t know what the technical term is, but if I called it ‘synchronised gun swivelling’, I think you’d get the gist. It’s incredible, really, and I can’t recall having ever seen it on film outside of a documentary before. Even more impressive is the sound as the weapons clack and slap into the hands of the soldiers – if it’s live sound, it’s captured brilliantly, and if it’s foleyed, it’s timed perfectly.

Now Demi Moore’s wandering through the parade ground rehearsing a request to take on a case, like Luca Brasi reciting his thanks outside Don Corleone’s office at his daughter’s wedding. Only, y’know, incredibly good looking.

In her superior’s office we get a shedload of exposition about the death of Private Santiago, a delightful fumbling of Moore’s rehearsed line, and her being told to leave the room so the three men she’s meeting with can talk behind her back.

“With the Marines at Gitmo, who knows what the Hell goes on down there…” indeed, exposition bloke, that all came out a few years later.

Moore’s captain dismisses her as “all passion, no street smarts” – it’s probably a military/patriarchy thing, but there’s not a huge amount of respect for the only woman to appear in this film so far.

Next up, we’ve got Tom Cruise swinging a baseball bat in the batting cage and barely pausing for breath as he cockily, sarcastically and cleverly schools a rival lawyer in how he’s going to wrap up the case they’re arguing without setting foot in a courtroom. Man, he’s been such a fixture in cinema for almost 40 years, you forget how young he looked back in the early nineties.

That’s classic Sorkin too, introducing a smarter-than-smart character by using some funny, sharp and technical dialogue (about getting a plea deal for a marine who bought oregano thinking it was marijuana), while barely breaking sweat.

Now in uniform, Cruise joins his fellow military lawyers – including young Kevin Pollack – for a briefing by young Xander Berkley.

Jesus, everyone looks so young.

In case we hadn’t realised Cruise’s Daniel Kaffee was supposed to be cocky, he’s crunching an apple throughout his first meeting with Demi Moore and acting distracted while she gets annoyed that he’s not taking the accusation that two Marines killed their colleague with the seriousness it deserves.

Pollack’s on fun, dry form here too, observing “I have no responsibilities here whatsoever”. He was great in The Usual Suspects, I seem to remember him in Willow and a Schwarzenegger movie too, and a YouTube video of him doing an incredible Christopher Walken impersonation. I bet he could do Nicholson brilliantly.

Moore gives Cruise a bunch of letters from the dead Marine and they’re read in Santiago’s voiceover – he talks about becoming unwell during training and requesting a transfer, then we’re back at Guantanamo with Jack Nicholson, Kiefer Sutherland and JT Walsh! If you’re not sure you know who that last guy is, look him up and if you’ve watched any US thriller from the 1990s, there’s a pretty decent chance you’ll recognise him…

… he’s one of those great character actors who usually plays an untrustworthy villainous type and tends to improves any movie he’s in by at least 17%.

Oh, there’s also a very brief appearance here by Joshua Malina – an old friend of Aaron Sorkin who starred in the final three series of The West Wing as Will Bailey and was in the original stage show of A Few Good Men. He gets five words here as Nicholson’s secretary/personal assistant – two of them are “yes” and three of them are “sir”.

The timeline is unclear here, but it seems like Nicholson’s just got wind of Santiago’s letters – in which he offers information about an illegal shot being fired over the fence from the military base into Cuba in return for a transfer away from the base – and he’s recommending Sutherland to ‘train’ up the young Private.

There’s plenty of meaty dialogue for everyone here, which feels very Sorkin and a little stagey, but you can see why everyone would want to sign up for the film. The menace with which Nicholson and Sutherland refer to Santiago’s ‘training’ makes it clear it won’t be straightforward, and Walsh’s concern for the Private brings that home. He disagrees with Nicholson in front of Sutherland, and gets a private bollocking from him for that.

We get a brief scene showing the two accused men – Dawson and Downey – arriving at the Washington military prison, where Downey gets one line (“Is this Washington DC?), to show he’s a little like Lennie from Of Mice And Men – a younger, simpler man who looks up to his colleague.

Back in the batting cage, Cruise gets a bollocking from Moore and tells her “I’m sexually aroused” – back once again with the everyday sexism, eh lads?

Still, she gives as good as she gets and we have our first mention of Code Reds – unofficial punishments by soldiers against their colleagues if they’re bringing the squad down. Suggestion is Downey and Dawson were carrying out a Code Red under orders, so although they caused Santiago’s death, they’re not entirely responsible. It’s one of those big ideas that Sorkin loves exploring in his work, even if there’s no happy resolution – just discussing the issues in a grown-up manner (with a few gags and maybe some condescending sexism thrown in for good measure), is enough of an exercise for him.

So Cruise and Pollack visit Dawson and Downey and get pretty short shrift from them, but plenty of exposition about Code Reds and their code – “UNIT – CORPS – GOD – COUNTRY”, which leads to a nicely timed “…code”, between the lawyers as they leave.

Now Kevin Bacon’s here! He’s a mate of Cruise, but prosecuting counsel – Cruise is eating again, naturally – and tells him Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup specifically told the marines not to Code Red Santiago. He offers that up without being asked, making Cruise suspicious, but he thinks nothing of it as he pops off to a news stand and trades well-worn phrases with the vendor as a sort of game of one-upmanship. There’s a great version of Hound Dog playing under this scene too, but it feels like an odd fit to the rest of the film – as if it’s only in there to set something up down the line…

We get a brief argument between Cruise and Moore in which she tells him she’s going to join the lads on their trip to Guantanamo. Of course, Cruise takes this very gracefully by telling nobody in particular “… and the hits just keep on coming”.

So the gang’s off to Guantanamo, but before the trip we get a little scene of Pollack doting over his baby daughter while Cruise acts fairly uninterested. If this was another kind of thriller, this kind of scene would be a surefire sign that Pollack would be dead before the end, but it’s not, thankfully.

On arrival in Gitmo, we find out Cruise’s character hates flying and hates boats – both modes of transports necessary to get to Jack Nicholson, and both very different to the Tom Cruise we know and love in 2021. He and Pollack are also wearing their dress white uniforms, and advised to cover up with camouflage because they’ve made themselves attractive targets for Cuban snipers.

On meeting Nicholson, it’s weird hearing him call Cruise “Danny” – it feels like he’s about to chase him through The Overlook swinging a fire axe or something. Anyway, it’s a polite if frosty meeting, as Nicholson praises Cruise’s late, legendary lawyer dad while Kiefer Sutherland gives good ‘boo-hiss’ villainy in the background.

Over an outdoor dinner, Nicholson’s charming the team and tells them Santiago was due to be transferred off the base on the morning he died. Moore needles him about Code Reds while Cruise tries unsuccessfully to shut her down, then Nicholson lays straight into her with some fairly crude and misogynist sexual comments to embarrass her into silence. Undeterred, she continues her questions, then Nicholson gets nasty with Cruise when he asks for a copy of Santiago’s transfer paperwork.

COLONEL JESSUP: “You see Danny, I can deal with the bullets, and the bombs, and the blood. I don’t want money, and I don’t want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there in that faggoty white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some fucking courtesy. You gotta ask me nicely.”

Aside from the homophobic language, seeing Nicholson chew up Sorkin’s dialogue is gold.

Back in DC, Kaffee’s chilling out in his apartment wearing a terrible shirt and answers the door to Moore who tells him she’s been appointed as Downey’s counsel by his aunt.

They go visit the defendants and Moore stands awkwardly with her hands on her hips as they reveal Kiefer Sutherland in fact ordered the Code Red on Santiago in a private meeting just after he told the platoon NOT to go at him.

Meanwhile, we learn JT Walsh has disappeared, and Kevin Bacon knows Cruise can’t win in court so instead he pitches a plea deal to the defendants who don’t want to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter because they feel they’ll have no honour or future after they’ve served six months for the crime.

Cruise says they’re going to jail to spite him, and has a crisis of faith with Pollack and Moore, states he’ll ask for someone else to take on their defence (which is briefly likened to the Nazis ‘just following orders’). Moore points out he’s got daddy issues because his old man was a highly-respected lawyer (classic Sorkin), and calls him “an ambulance chaser with a rank”, which is probably a pretty good insult if you’re a military lawyer, but otherwise just sounds like bad rhyming slang.

Of course, this means Cruise has to spend a night having a long hard think in a bar (where he overhears yer actual Aaron Sorkin chatting up a woman at the bar using lines he’d used earlier), then doing moody sightseeing around Washington DC before he shows up at court the next morning and pleading not guilty on the defendants’ behalf, thus ensuring we get a full-length film.

The murder trial is then adjourned to take place in three weeks’ time. That really dates the film, or at least shows the difference between US military courts and the UK legal system, where serious crimes are booking over a year down the line after a plea is entered, but we can get into the decade-long systematic underfunding of the judiciary on another blog.

Anyway, we’ve got a team of handsome idealists taking on a big idea while using big language, so again, it’s classic Sorkin.

We’re treated to a nice training montage of Cruise, Moore and Pollack going over the case in preparation for the trial, and it’s very noticeable that Pollack’s clothing becomes more dad-ish in that three weeks, while Moore starts showing a little more neck and Cruise begins noticing her a little more.

And now we’re into the trial which begins with Kevin Bacon stalking around the courthouse delivering blunt facts of Santiago’s death along with a bunch of analogies to the jury, before Cruise reminds them they were just following orders, so can’t really be responsible for their actions.

The Secret Barrister would bloody love this, I’m sure.

As the witnesses are called up, we’re treated to a few more big names – Cuba Gooding Jr is an angry Marine who didn’t take kindly to Santiago’s offer of information in return for a transfer…

… and he’s followed by Christopher Guest playing a medical examiner.

I’ve pretty much only seen Guest in comedies (and there’s one on the Late Reviews list for down the line too), and he plays this with real restraint, explaining that the acidosis which killed Santiago could’ve been caused by something on the rag stuffed into his mouth, but could also have been due to an underlying condition which his records show could easily have been a factor.

There’s a fun gag where Demi Moore objects, is overruled, then objects strenuously to the chagrin of Pollack and Cruise, but this leads to the first day ending with Pollack and Moore arguing over why the other likes/hates Marines. He hates them because they bullied the weak kid, she loves them because they’re the thin red line between order and chaos.

To calm things down, Cruise tells Pollack to go home and see his kid, then takes Moore out for seafood where he makes the situation even better by telling her there’s a good chance they’ll lose the trial.

Next on the witness stand is ER’s Noah Wyle, talking about Code Reds…

There’s a nice little gag where Bacon makes a big deal about Code Reds not being in the Standard Operating Procedures and making a fool out of him, before Cruise does the same trick only talking about the Mess Hall not being in the book either, so presumably the Marines never eat.

It works a lot better on film.

Cruise goes back to his news vendor for more of his phrase-swapping, but it’s all just a ruse to get him out of the car so JT Walsh can sneak in! He explains Santiago’s death was a Code Red, he wasn’t going to be transferred, and Nicholson’s covering up the whole thing.

Cruise drops him at a hotel under armed guard, then rushes off to a bar to boast at Kevin Bacon, who tries to warn him off accusing Nicholson without evidence as it’ll end everyone’s career, then tells him he’s being bullied by the memory of his dad.

Cruise, ever the professional, retorts: “You’re a lousy fucking softball player, Jack!”

Next on the stand is Kiefer Sutherland, being polite but combative while Cruise is warned by the judge that he’s indulging in “irrelevant badgering”, which sounds hilarious but really isn’t.

Sutherland states that none of his men would ever disobey an order, meaning that by definition, Dawson and Downey were acting under instruction – that’s a big win for Cruise, but before he has chance to celebrate, the team discover the flight logs out of Gitmo have been tampered with, rendering JT Walsh’s upcoming appearance moot.

With that in mind, Walsh writes a letter to Santiago’s parents apologising he was too weak to stop their son’s death, dressing up in his best uniform, and blows his brains all over the hotel room while Pvt Downey flounders on the witness stand and admits he never got the order from Sutherland, rather from his co-defendant.

Having learned of Walsh’s death, Cruise does the natural thing and gets hammered in the rain, returning to his apartment for an argument with Moore when she suggests getting Nicholson on the stand. She points out, essentially, that he is an annoying man and could probably needle the Colonel into admitting responsibility for the Code Red, but Cruise shouts at her and she storms out.

The lads have a heart-to-heart about dads, then drink-drive after Moore to tell her they’re going to put Nicholson on the stand. Sober, the next morning Cruise does a half-decent Nicholson impersonation (I reckon Pollack would’ve done better), and sells the idea he’s going to annoy the Colonel into admitting his guilt.

And then we’re here – it’s all been leading to this. Every gif, meme or half-arsed homage related to this film is based on Nicholson’s appearance on the stand. Roughly the last 20 minutes of the movie.

Before they go into court, Moore gives Cruise the opposite of a pep talk, warning him he could get into a lot of trouble if things go south, but then Nicholson arrives and we’re on!

What follows is a genuinely thrilling (albeit legally iffy), examination of a witness, with a terrific back and forth between Cruise and Nicholson. One is young, idealistic and certain he’s right, the other is older, shows utter contempt for the younger man, and is certain of the invincibility his rank and uniform provide him.

Each man chews on Sorkin’s dialogue and spits it out perfectly, round after round of verbal attack and retreat. Nicholson manages to be polite, sarcastic and menacing at the same time, and he’s clearly enjoying every syllable, getting angrier and angrier until he gets up and starts to walk out of the courtroom, at which point Cruise tells him he’s not done yet, and IT’S ON!

Honestly, a write-up would struggle to do this justice, so do yourself a favour and just watch the scene.

Nicholson, furiously arrogant, is hoist by his own petard before he’s even yelled out his infamous “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”, and then Kevin Bacon has to read him his rights.

Sure, he gets in a last verbal (and almost physical), jab, and tells Cruise “all you did was weaken a country today”, but it’s over for him, he’s had it. He’s taken away by military police, and the same’s going to happen to Sutherland.

Next up, the jury return and find the defendants not guilty of murder or conspiracy, but they’re both guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and are dishonourably discharged, so while we get huge satisfaction from seeing Nicholson get his comeuppance, it’s far from a happy ending, as these two lads have had it too.

This whole scene, as the defendants realise what’s happened and contemplate their future, feels very stagey and also a little tacked on. The music swells as Cruise tells Dawson he doesn’t need a patch on his arm to have honour, and they salute each other, each finally showing the respect they’re due.

Yep, that sticks out like a sore thumb. But then Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise share a joke to prove they’re still friends despite going all out against each other in court, and the credits roll, and we’re done.

Thoughts On The Film

Very much a film of two halves – everything leading up to the courtroom stuff, and the trial itself – and it very much feels like a play brought to the screen, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that when the material is this solid.

Sorkin famously won’t allow any amendments to his words, and you can see everyone’s giving it their all, even if the words sound more believable coming from some than others. The build up of tension between Cruise and Nicholson on the witness stand is really nicely cut too, so you can see the temperature rising between the two before the Colonel explodes.

There’s a nice comic interplay between Cruise and Pollack which works better than some of the chemistry he’s had over the years with bigger stars – the riff where they ask each other if they’re actually JT Walsh’s character got a big chuckle from me.

With the exception of a few beautiful external shots, the direction isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but that’s only in comparison to the strength of the writing and performances.

If you’re going into this for Nicholson’s big moment, you’re in for a long wait, but despite the number of homages and parodies it’s inspired over the last couple of decades, there’s much more to the film than those five words. It’s not exactly a Swiss watch of a piece, but everything builds up to that point and if you focus on it too much out of context, you lose out on some great performances and line deliveries.

The Verdict

This stands up almost 30 years down the line as a great, well-written drama with terrific dialogue delivered by an incredible cast and there’s so much more to it than a five-word outburst.

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