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You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men
(1992)

(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

Roger Ebert summed it up well at the time (“the film doesn’t make us work, doesn’t allow us to figure things out for ourselves, is afraid we’ll miss things if they’re not spelled out”): everything’s too easy, almost too competently structured. Even Tom Cruise’s against-the-odds lawyer, because he’s such a cocky so-and-so (patented Cruise at the time), is a foregone conclusion. We’re shown the culpability of the superiors at the base in a crude early flashback, and there are no subsequent twists or how-do-they-get-recover-from-that setbacks that would warrant putting this into the annals of classic, edge-of-the-seat legal thrillers (which hasn’t prevented it having a fantastic life as a stage production).

Sure, Tom vs Jack at the conclusion is fun (it needs to be, with Tom finally getting someone to yell at who can yell right back at him), but it’s too well-oiled and insufficiently inspired (the old “trip up your witness” routine, combined with the old “witness you’ll never use” bluff, even foreshadowed in the pre-interrogation prep) to truly satisfy. It’s perhaps telling that, even though A Few Good Men garnered a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Sorkin’s screenplay – brushed up by William Goldman, which elicited, in a rare case, endorsement by the original writer, who incorporated some of the changes into his stage version – did not.

The role of Lieutenant Kaffee fits Cruise like a glove (Tom Hulce had already played the character on stage), and he needed a hit coming off an expensive underperformer (Days of Thunder) and a romantic fizzler (Far and Away). Kaffee’s insufferably sure of himself and dismissive of others, with Demi Moore principally serving as his straight woman; Lt Commander Galloway is a thankless part, the character required to make obvious gaffes, suffer sexist comments from Jack’s Jessup in an attempt to get a rise from her, give Kaffee morale-boosting pep talks at crucial moments, and get no kind of cathartic scene in return (Cruise is more than recompensed for the insult to his “fagoty” wardrobe).

Kaffee’s also saddled with rote daddy issues and made-to-order “depth” of character, so obviously cynical that they play as entirely artificial and insubstantial. Andwe have to suffer a Tom drunk scene, something no one deserves. I’d actually kind of forgotten why Cruise used to irritate me so much, as he’s long since left this performance mode behind, but there are times in A Few Good Men where he’s actively encouraging you to give up on the movie.

When he’s the baseball bat wielding smartass he’s fine, but once he gets into serious mode – struggling against the ghost of daddy and facing the knowledge that he was picked for the role because he was expected to take a plea – he’s repetitively over-emphatic in his delivery and terribly unconvincing, be it berating (repeatedly) his defendants or having a go at Galloway. He also does an off-putting amount prop eating acting and is the focus of far too much didactic, hammy, “You’re this kind of person” lines of the sort Sorkin loved in The West Wing (“You know nothing about the law. You’re an ambulance chaser with a rank”; “You got bullied in the courtroom by the memory of a dead lawyer”). There’s a degree of playing on the Cruise charm, but he’s doing so much to discourage you that, when he plays the innocence card (“Have I done something to offend you?”; “You don’t like me very much do you?”) we think the offended parties have a point, particularly Jack exclaiming “You snotty little bastard!

Elsewhere, this is an entirely impressive cast. Nicholson is good shouty value - $5m well spent – but it’s very much a “wind him up and let him go” part and included his much-lampooned classic line (apparently Spielberg’s suggestion). The Best Supporting Actor nod reflecting that lack of extra spark; Hackman won for his far more impressive Little Bill villainy. Kevin Bacon was segueing into character work at this point (see also JFK) to commendable effect, the late JT Walsh is as peerless as ever and the likes of Noah Wyle, Cuba Gooding Jr and Reiner regular Christopher Guest also show up. Most impressive is probably Kiefer Sutherland (previously in Reiner’s Stand by Me) as a God-fearing but coolly malevolent lieutenant who ordered the hazing that led to the death of Private Santiago (and so the trial).

The US Military refused to cooperate with the movie, but that couldn’t be taken to imply it shines a deep and meaningful light on its more suspect methods and attitudes; as unconscionable as the marine’s hazing is made out to be, it’s also stressed that those responsible are serving at Guantanamo (pre-public infamy, and pre-Bad Boys 2) and so discipline is paramount, and that merely being commanded by an officer is no excuse for abandoning one’s own moral compass (hence the verdict against the two soldiers).

DP Robert Richardson had previously shot several military pictures for Oliver Stone, so that’s doubtless why he was called upon, and he duly does a very polished job, while Marc Shaiman delivers an utterly forgettable, vacuum-formed late-80s/early-90s score. Perhaps most notable is that this was Reiner’s most successful movie but simultaneously the beginning of the end of his hot streak. Everything he’d touched previously may not have been unified by genre or any kind of style – by very definition, he had proved himself the most versatile of journeyman – but they all had the distinction of his picking idiosyncratic subject matter and making accessible successes of them. This was the first time he really went after something purpose built to be a hit, and it’s both his least interesting picture up to that point and in retrospect a signal of the fading of his discerning eye. He’d go on to make underwhelming romcoms and dramedies, and still happen upon the odd success (The American President, The Bucket List) but with such reliable mediocrity of content that his initial form seems like a freak aberration, or some kind of witchcraft.

Still, in the immediate moment, A Few Good Men worked out very nicely for everyone involved. The seventh most successful picture of the year worldwide, and recognised with four Oscar nominations (no wins). And as by-numbers as it may be, it’s still more satisfying in its courtroom dramatics than the decade’s subsequent slew of John Grisham thrillers (although, Cruise’s next film would be the exception, the first and by a significant margin the best Grisham adaptation).


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