Thursday 9 October 2014

Movie Review: A Few Good Men (1992)

A military court drama with a superb cast and a razor sharp script, A Few Good Men is an exhilarating story of murder, cover-up, honour and unexpected determination.

When Private Santiago is killed at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is put in charge of representing the two defendants. Marines Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Downey (James Marshall) don't deny that they intended to rough up Santiago as a disciplinary measure, but they claim that they were ordered to do so. Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Lieutenant Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) join Kaffee's defence team.

Initially, the cocky Daniel is looking for a quick plea-bargain with his counterpart Captain Ross (Kevin Bacon), but a visit to the Naval Base and a meeting with Guantanamo's commander Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) begin to reveal a deeper story. Santiago was an underperforming Marine, Jessup wanted him kept on the base and "trained", and Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland) was eager to please, over the objections of Lieutenant Colonel Markinson (J. T. Walsh). But Jessup tells Kaffee that Santiago was granted a transfer, and was murdered shortly before he was due to leave the base. Egged on by Galloway, Kaffee finds the courage to keep investigating. He takes the case to a court martial and argues on behalf of the defendants, resulting in a titanic battle for the truth.

Jessup, talking to Kaffee: I run my unit how I run my unit. You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances. I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4000 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.

Written by Aaron Sorkin (adapting his play) and directed by Rob Reiner, A Few Good Men is a gripping experience. The film engages immediately, the complex mystery of what happened to Private Santiago providing layers of depth, the Guantanamo crime setting adding a stab of danger, while the evolution of Daniel Kaffee from carefree arrogance to intense commitment provides a compelling arc. For the entire running length of 138 minutes Reiner does not release the tension, instead building a courtroom emotional rollercoaster as Kaffee's case ebbs and flows, the plucky defence team taking on the establishment and trying to shake the defendants loose from the grip of a seemingly straightforward verdict of guilt.

Sorkin's script gains power as it cleverly transitions from what happened to why it happened. A Few Good Men keeps probing until it arrives at the heart of the issue: the need to maintain a unit's essential code of honour versus an individual's irrefutable rights. In an Army that depends on both to thrive, the collision between what the collective needs and what an individual stands for could have unintended consequences, and a lot can go wrong even when the best of intentions are steeped in a traditional code of conduct.

The film's central clash is translated into a climactic confrontation between Kaffee the unsure attorney and Jessup the wily Colonel on the witness stand. As the sparks finally fly, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson are both brilliant, bouncing off each other in a battle of wills that is destined to destroy either the lawyer or the soldier. Cruise grows from boy to man as he accepts his destiny to dominate courtrooms, while Nicholson delivers one his all-time great performances as the arrogant base commander, as sure of his methods and motives as he is oblivious to his creeping maniacal tendencies.

Jessup: I'll answer the question. You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I'm entitled!
Jessup: You want answers?!
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessup: You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don't want the truth, because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like "honor", "code", "loyalty". We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said "thank you", and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

The supporting cast is filled with superior talent in every key role. Moore is sometimes awkward but in keeping with JoAnne Galloway's slightly misfit character, and Kevin Pollak as Weinberg provides the calm brains to complement Kaffee's instinctive charisma. Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, and J.T. Walsh round out the men in uniform holding different moral perspectives on the same incident.

A Few Good Men finds soldiers of all ranks believing that they are doing the right things for the right reasons. When the outcome is tragic, the foundation is set for an epic showdown in search of justice.

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