Movie Review: A Few Good Men
Rating: R (language)
Length: 138 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 11, 1992
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Genre: Crime / Drama / Mystery
Stars: 4 out of 5
Sense of duty, military honor, God, and country are explored in this classic courtroom drama from director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Brought to life by a star-studded cast, which includes Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon, this film is an enjoyable popcorn movie with quotable lines and a satisfying conclusion.
The plot revolves around military lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, who is assigned to defend two Marines who caused the death of another Marine while they were stationed at Guantanamo Bay. Kaffee is known as a lawyer who always settles out of court, but an inexperienced idealistic lawyer, Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway, is convinced that the two men are innocent. With her help, Kaffee interviews Colonel Nathan R. Jessup and other Marines and concludes that the death was caused by an unofficial hazing ordered by Jessup. By the time Kaffee enters the courtroom, he's determined to prove the innocence of the two marines being tried for murder. However, a military cover-up and Kaffee's own struggle to become a man independent of his father's legacy further complicate the case as he goes to trial.
Tom Cruise brings just the right blend of arrogance and likability as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, a military lawyer only a year out of Harvard Law School. Adding needed depth to the character are Kaffee's struggles to emerge from the shadow of his father, who was a respected attorney. Although it's predictable that Cruise's character will have a change of heart and defend the two Marines, the movie hinges on Cruise's ability to make this turnabout seem believable. Cruise must also portray someone who is glib yet intelligent enough to make his inevitable victory plausible.
Demi Moore has a rather thankless job as the disapproving and inexperienced Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway. Her crusading character is a bit of a cliché, but an added layer of depth is given to the character as she avoids a romantic fling with Cruise's character. Although Galloway's primary job is to spur Kaffee into action, somehow Moore's ability to let the character's emotions play transparently on her face allows the audience to root for her. She also serves as the moral center of the film and is sometimes a stand-in for the audience.
Jack Nicholson was already a two-time Academy Award winner when he played Colonel Nathan R. Jessup. Nicholson expertly plays the role of a man who embodies the might makes right ethos of some aspects of the Marines. Nicholson's role is showy, but it never becomes a caricature. Even his carefully bared teeth, sneer, and big cigar seem like a logical extension of the character, rather than crutches to create Jessup. Nicholson's character pervades the film from the moment he's introduced, even though he's only in three scenes. He's obviously in the film to play Goliath to Kaffee's David, and Nicholson savors every moment of it.
Kevin Bacon has a small role as the prosecuting attorney and Kaffee's friend, Captain Jack Ross. Bacon delivers an excellent, understated performance, but he doesn't have much to do in this supporting role. However, he still creates a worthy, intelligent adversary for Cruise's Kaffee. It would be easy to make Ross unlikeable in some way, but Reiner and Sorkin wisely avoid this lazy plot device.
From the first frame of the film, it's clear that Reiner has carefully plotted and formed every single shot and direction. He has also elicited excellent performances from not only the lead actors but every supporting actor.
Sorkin based the film's script on his critically-acclaimed Broadway play of the same name. Reiner saw the stage play several times before choosing Sorkin's script as his next film project. The central conflict of a moral dilemma in the military appealed to Reiner, but he also closely identified with Kaffee's struggle to differentiate himself from his own father. This conflict was magnified for the film version. Parallels between the acts of the two Marines on trial and the Nuremberg trials were made in the play, but they were downplayed in the film script.
Sorkin also wisely avoids making Kaffee's win absolute. Even though the two Marines were ordered to haze their fellow soldier, their actions caused a man's death. Sorkin's ending admits the Marines' culpability, while recognizing that legally they didn't violate the law.
"A Few Good Men" brings together some of the biggest stars of the day to act in a flawlessly directed yet slightly predictable film. Even though the film runs for over two and a quarter hours, it doesn't seem a minute too long. Fans of courtroom dramas should definitely put this film at the top of their viewing list.