“A Few Good Men” is a big-time, mainstream Hollywood movie par excellence. It’s got all the elements for across-the-boards acceptance — juicy parts for some of the top stars in the business, a Broadway pedigree, a riveting David-vs.-Goliath courtroom battle, serious attitudes that won’t threaten or offend anyone, and skilled filmmaking hands at the top of their game. Fact that it covers such familiar ground and takes no risks won’t in any way constrain this Columbia/Castle Rock entry from promotion to the top B.O. ranks.
Mass audiences will eat up this expose of peacetime military malfeasance laced with the story of a bright young lawyer’s struggle to get out from under the imposing shadow of an illustrious father. Expert story construction and compelling thesping and direction make all the narrative elements pay off as if calculated by a precision instrument in which all the parts are working perfectly.
Adapting his 1989 play, which ran for 449 performances on Broadway, Aaron Sorkin has opened it up just enough to accommodate the requirements of the big screen, and magnified the psychological father-son dilemma of the leading character to lend him more dimension. Otherwise, the same histrionic fireworks that gripped theater audiences will prove even more compelling to filmgoers due to the star power and dramatic screw-tightening.
Populated virtually entirely by military characters, tale has as its point of departure the death of a private at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base. Two young Marines, Dawson and Downey, are quickly charged with murder, as they appear to have gone too far in subjecting the victim to off-limits disciplinary action called “Code Red” for violating the chain of command in their platoon.
Chosen to defend them is Navy lawyer and recent Harvard Law grad, Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a hot dog who prefers baseball duds to military uniforms and enjoys an unblemished record of settling cases through plea bargains rather than in a courtroom.
Briefly alighting in Cuba to interview the base’s commanding officer, Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), Kaffee barely goes through the motions of researching the case, but is goaded by the driven special counsel, Lt. Commander Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) to press further and, eventually, to take on the top brass.
Basically, the defense team, which also includes Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), has to show, against heavy odds, that Dawson and Downey were illegally ordered to inflict Code Red punishment on the victim, and by whom.
Making this seemingly impossible are the intransigent personalities of the officers in question, the eminent, ferocious Jessep and the hostile Lt. Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), as well as the sudden unavailability of the one witness who could clear everything up, Lt. Col. Markinson (J.T. Walsh).
Action ping-pongs back and forth between defense team strategy sessions, interrogations of the two perpetrators, man-to-mans between Kaffee and the friendly but fiercely competitive and skilled prosecuting attorney Capt. Ross (Kevin Bacon), and raging exchanges in which Galloway won’t let Kaffee off the hook, prodding and belittling him into rising to the occasion.
Kaffee’s problem in this regard is that his late father was a celebrated Navy lawyer himself.
Afraid to take on his paternal competition, Kaffee finds it infinitely easier to glide through life taking the easy way out, getting drunk and avoiding confrontations that will test him.
Never having tried a case before a judge, he’s putting himself, as well as his clients, at risk when he finally takes the floor, always a good dramatic gambit.
By the time of the climactic, 15-minute courtroom showdown between Kaffee and Jessep, the young man is in a hole so deep that viewers will be fairly drooling to find out how Kaffee’s going to turn the tables on his adversary.
Sorkin delivers the goods in potent fashion, and manages the nifty trick of making the audience feel as though it has experienced something considerably more sobering and profound than it really is.
Major values such as honor, good and evil, commitment, ethics, God and country are repeatedly invoked, and the dynamic way the narrative charges along makes it easy to overlook the fact that the text really doesn’t have much to say about any of these things. To the extent that the play addresses any concerns at length, it conservatively and reassuringly suggests that the existing system of checks and balances will ensure the endurance of the status quo in the military.
But this is a well-made play well done in every respect. Director Rob Reiner hasn’t missed a beat in extracting the most out the material and his actors. The characters’ repeated trajectories from rushes of excitement to the depths of despair will give audiences a fulfilling emotional rollercoaster ride, and the underdog factor is played to the hilt.
Kaffee is a perfect part for Tom Cruise, and he engages it totally in giving his most passionate, mature performance since “Born on the Fourth of July.”
Demi Moore proves a good, challenging foil, standing up to Kaffee with fire and authority.
But the showiest turn is reserved for Nicholson, and the crafty old pro makes more than the most of it. Playing a Marine lifer who’s worked his way almost to the top and has long since mastered the art of pulling everyone’s strings, Nicholson uses a few well-chosen tools–vocal sneer, bared teeth, arched eyebrows, big stogie–to strike fear into the other characters and to spellbind the viewer. He’s only got three major scenes, but they’re all dynamite.
In fact, everyone registers strongly. Kevin Bacon scores as the snappy, intelligent prosecutor, and Kiefer Sutherland’s self-righteous good ol’ boy is no one you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Acting newcomer Wolfgang Bodison and James Marshall are excellent as the youthful defendants, while Kevin Pollak, J.T. Walsh, Christopher Guest and J.A. Preston all have their moments.
Technically, film couldn’t be better, as lenser Robert Richardson, working in widescreen, editor Robert Leighton, production designer J. Michael Riva, costume designer Gloria Gresham and composer Marc Shaiman have all made contributions of discreet excellence. At more than two-and-a-quarter hours, pic’s not a minute too long.