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A Few Good Men
“You can’t handle the truth!”
There are actors who desperately seek your notice. And then there are the very few whom you cannot help but notice – even if they are as still as the furniture in a scene. Perhaps, that’s what they call ‘screen presence’. Jack Nicholson is one such actor. So, in A Few Good Men (1992), when he thunders those words in an open courtroom, you not only take notice but are brainwashed into thinking that there’s no significant character in the movie other than his. Yet, of the five main characters in the story, his has the least screen-time. So powerful is his presence and so convincing is his performance that by the time he finishes his rant in the court, you seem almost ready to buy what he is hawking – a moral imperative with a dangerous logic that demands support for the brutal undemocratic methods of the few to protect the democratic freedoms of the many.
You see, the problem with virtue is that it is monochromatic. But villainy, particularly of the intelligent variety, has several interesting hues to it. While it’s always wonderful to deal with the virtuous, they are easily predictable and satiate your curiosity quickly. Whereas, watching the villainous holds a kind of diabolical fascination that does not jade easily, simply because you are forever trying to read their minds about what they’re going to do next. Give me a virtuous hero and I’ll watch a movie once. But give me a villain who is articulate and has presence, and I’ll watch it many times over. But the charismatic presence of people with twisted ideas – not just actors in movies, but those in social and public circles – should make you pause, shudder, and ponder about the effect they can have on you with their searing passion and their power over the spoken-word.
Jack Nicholson plays the highly-decorated Col. Jessup, whose star is on the rise in the Army’s ranks and who commands one of its units in Guantanamo Bay along the Cuban border. A Few Good Men opens with two marines under his command being charged with the attack on a third one that results in his consequential death. It seems like the accused duo are condemned by an open-and-shut case against them. Except that, at the heart of the case is ‘Code Red’ – an unauthorized system of disciplinary action meted out by unit members to other members who break its honor code of “Unit, Corps, God, Country”. The honor code is like religion – it has a vice-like grip on its members, either because they completely believe in it or because they dare not question it. As noble, honorable, and fear-inspiring as that code is, it inevitably comes into conflict with other equally noble human values. The military-justice process kicks in, and the marines are internally assigned a three-person legal team to represent them.
While the team is overseen by Cdr. Galloway, a woman military lawyer, it is led by the softball-bat-wielding, brash, young, rookie counsel, Lt. Kaffee, who is in turn assisted by Lt. Weinberg. Though Kaffee has less than a year’s experience to his credit, he nevertheless has a clean record of having not lost even one of his forty-four cases to date. The only catch is that he has never seen the inside of a courtroom since he has mastered the art of plea-bargaining all his cases out-of-court with what Galloway describes as his “fast-food-slick-ass-Persian-Bazaar” manner. From their preliminary investigation, the team is convinced that there’s more to it than meets the eye in the tragic case of Pvt. Santiago’s death at the hands of Cpl. Dawson and Pvt. Downey. They realize that the two accused marines were only carrying out orders that were handed down to them. From here on, the narrative is all about scrupulously tracking back to why Santiago was attacked by his own unit members; what resulted in his death; who was involved; and how far the involvement went up the chain of command.
A Few Good Men is the screen adaptation by Aaron Sorkin of his own stage-play that was partially based on a true US Army incident, even though the movie makes no such claim in its credits. But make no mistake about what category it falls into – it is formulaic Hollywood box-office stuff. So there are no surprises in the way the movie transpires and shapes its way to its expected epilogue. You don’t get any points for guessing right at the beginning, rightly, about who is good, who is bad, and who is in between. What sets the movie brilliantly apart, though, can be summed up in one word that describes it in its entirety: Crisp. Right from its precisely-pressed military uniforms, to its spit-and-polish burnished sets, to its sparkling screenplay, to its smoothly extracted acting performances, and finally to its consummately handled courtroom scenes, the production values are crisp all the way. Director Rob Reiner is among those rare thinking mainstream directors who know how to soup up an entertainment movie by giving it the look and feel of genuine authenticity. If you have seen The American President, which had the same writer and director duo of Sorkin and Reiner, you will know what I mean. Though A Few Good Men is a commercial outing with a big-budget star cast, it never loses its laser-like focus on the court case even for a minute of its running time – not even to make a concession for a romantic sub-plot between the very attractive pair of Tom Cruise and Demi Moore who play Kaffee and Galloway.
Reiner makes the movie highly watchable thanks to the two big resources he has in its kitty. First is the extraordinarily high level of acting that the talented cast brings to the table. The effect of the presence of Jack Nicholson in the cast is very obvious – he raises the bar to an extent where even the minor character of Cpl. Dawson gets a telling performance from Wolfgang Bodison, an otherwise unknown actor. Second is Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay and dialogue writing that crackles with energy, attitude, and adrenaline. Reiner’s direction paces the narrative to perfection, especially in the endgame where he uses pauses, silences, and sotto voce dialogues before finally exploding with the high-voltage courtroom confrontation between Nicholson and Cruise. As towering as Nicholson’s performance is, watch Tom Cruise – despite his chocolaty, school-boyish looks – get the better of Nicholson, if only slightly, in the movie’s dénouement where he literally puts him in his place as a schoolteacher would, while dealing with an errant pupil…