1992 / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #400: A Few Good Men (1992)

Three years after Born on the Fourth of July Cruise would once again find himself being the top star at the Box Office and featuring in another Best Picture nominee. This time the film was A Few Good Men, directed by Rob Reiner and adapted by Aaron Sorkin from his own stage play. As a big fan of Sorkin’s work I could tell almost immediately that he had written the screenplay as it was both fast-paced and witty.

The film is based around the court case of two marines; Privates Dawson and Downey, who are accused of poisoning and murdering their colleague Private William Santiago. Cruise plays Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a military lawyer who is notorious for making plea bargains before cases go to court. Cruise excels as the smooth-talking lawyer and easily deals with Sorkin’s unique brand of dialogue. Although Kaffee feels like it will be an open-and-shut case he didn’t figure on the involvement of Commander Joanne Galloway, who thinks that the two privates deserve a proper trial. After getting herself involved in the case, Galloway convinces Kaffee to take the case to court after seeing that he believes that the men are innocent. Reiner and Sorkin let the audience in on the fact that the real men to blame are Dawson and Downey’s commanding officers Col. Jessop and Lt. Kendrick who both gave them orders to scare Santiago after he criticised their leadership. Both men though are eager to cover up their orders and Dawson and Downey are seen as the sacrificial lambs who will go down due to Kaffee’s inexperience in the courtroom. Although I’ve never seen A Few Good Men before I was aware of the film’s big line delivered by Jessop in which he tells Kaffee ‘You Can’t Handle the Truth’. This line is brilliantly delivered by Jack Nicholson who was the only cast member to be nominated for his role in the film despite only appearing in a small amount of scenes.

The fact that Nicholson’s performance in the film is so memorable is a testament to Sorkin as much as it is to the actor’s brilliant screen presence. One of Sorkin’s biggest strengths is to flesh out his supporting characters so the audience is able to understand their motivations and care about them. This is true here as the violent Kendrick, charming government prosecutor Cpt. Ross and Kaffee’s assistant Sam are all given their chances to shine. Cruise is great at portraying Kaffee’s growing care of the case as we saw him become more passionate as the film progresses. Kafee’s understanding of what it truly means to be a military man is a plot point that is never over-emphasised but also provides one of the film’s memorable final scenes. Cruise also has great chemistry with Demi Moore and they bounce off each other perfectly as they deliver Sorkin’s screwball comedy-esque dialogue. Since we last saw her in Ghost, Moore has definitely improved as an actress and she’s great playing a straight-laced Lt Commander who remains buttoned up throughout. One of the things I liked so much about A Few Good Men was the fact that Galloway and Kaffee never were romantically involved and instead remained colleagues. I’m sure other writers would’ve had these characters embark on a romance during the film and it’s a testament to Sorkin that this didn’t happen. Reiner’s direction is equally impressive and he is able to make the courtroom scenes as tense as possible. The way the camera pounces back between Kaffee and Jessop during the film’s most infamous scene makes it almost feel like a tennis match albeit one based on power. Although not a truly great film, A Few Good Men is a great piece of entertainment and I found it easy to digest in one sitting. Reiner, Sorkin and a fine ensemble cast are able to provide two hours of compelling well-written drama which doesn’t hammer home its central message. Meanwhile, Cruise proved that he could handle snappy dialogue and shine in a lighter role to the ones he played in both Born on the Fourth of July and Rain Man.


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