“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.”
It was good to see the famous quote delivered by Jack Nicholson, finally. I watched this movie after accidentally watching Top Gun first, as you will know if you’ve read the introduction to the series. It’s a mistake I don’t feel too bad about since Tom Cruise plays near-enough the same character, just in a different uniform, with a different female lead in a higher position of authority fighting against Cruise’s obnoxious ‘boyish charm’, although he was thirty at the time of its release.
A Few Good Men is a legal drama based on the play of the same name, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner. The story is centred around the death of a marine named Santiago, during a hazing at a marine base in Guantanamo Bay and the subsequent murder trial of the two accused marines, Dawson and Downey. The two are defended by young hotshot lawyer, Daniel Kaffee (Cruise), and his merry band of military lawyers.
The story is predictable, but solid, with plenty of trials and tribulations to keep the audience happy. It succeeds where Top Gun fails by virtue of its variety of characters and because it has a main story, set up in the opening minutes, to build around – not just vertigo-inducing, vision-blurring shots the camera can’t quite catch and a lot of testosterone flying about, though Cruise does dangle his baseball bat around quite a bit (he thinks better with it in his hands). In fact, perhaps as a little joke, Kaffee mentions he hates flying and sailing.
The acting was steady down to the individual marine, helped by the fact that Kaffee and co. bore the brunt. I do have to point out that the movie is absolutely star-studded by the end. Cruise and Nicholson play versions of their on-screen selves. Demi Moore played the part of Galloway, the tired, semi-battle hardened female authority figure in a male-dominated profession, building up to her total rebellion against the patriarchy in Striptease four years later. Sam (Pollak) acts as the mediator between the passionate Galloway and the blasé Kaffee, on multiple occasions pushing his child around in a pram for no reason other than to establish him as the wiser adult in the bunch.
Kiefer Sutherland makes an appearance, his crew cut doing him and his ears no favours. Kevin Bacon fights the urge to dance as he plays basketball as the rival lawyer and friend. Oddly enough, and surely only for the reason of sharing the same name as the setting, Cuba Gooding Jr. pops up at the end to give a short-lived cameo in court and looks great in a uniform. Nicholson certainly had an easy time of it playing the perpetually pissed off Colonel Jessep, commenting on his five million dollar role as ‘one of the few times when it was money well spent’. He spent more time on the poster than in the film, and when he says ‘money well spent’, what he really means is ‘money well spent on a big name by the company to make a lot more money’, which it did ($243,240,178).
It’s aged well and still holds up as an enjoyable movie. If it was released tomorrow for the first time, it could fit almost seamlessly into the canon of military drama in the twenty-first century. Colonel Jessep calling Cruise’s white navy uniform “faggoty” out of the blue was surprising and certainly not okay – even in the nineties, but it wouldn’t be impossible to happen today, nor unrealistic to occur privately amongst the closed-ranks of old-school Generals at tea time.
Most troubling is the treatment of Galloway as the only female character by her ranking superiors and outranked subordinates. From the outset it’s the dashing Kaffee, with his “boyish charm” and stunning wit that does what Kaffee wants to do. He addresses senior officers poorly and delivers his opening statement in a court room without standing. Even Sam, as his senior peer, mostly flits around following whatever order Kaffee gives, although he’s there to keep an eye on him. The treatment of Galloway is grating, but not untrue and most importantly, purposefully done.
Unlike Top Gun where the female lead is won over to the protagonist’s forceful arrogance, Galloway is frustrated and attempting to stamp her own mark on the proceedings. She fails, but the movie draws attention to that fact, instead of failing to notice it as an issue altogether. It could work as a storyline today about any number of boys clubs, with some tweaks to tone the overt insubordination down. Thankfully Sorkin resisted the urge to romanticise the two leads, even as Galloway appears unannounced at Kaffee’s apartment with an invite to dinner and Kaffee chases her through the Hollywood rain to apologise. It all works out, they only wanted to complement each other on their lawyering skills.
The avoidance of major cliché pitfalls, a steady story and acting, with a generally PC-okay outlook means this movie has aged well.