I swear that while I was watching A Few Good Men it occurred to me that I was watching the same plot as in Full Metal Jacket, the premises are quite similar, but with a positive twist of growth for the character and without the social criticism or experimentation in the human condition. The paths of both films are built on similar ideas, the patriarchal structure, the iron chain of command present in the military world and the fanaticism/violence it generates among those who train and are trained to defend the sovereignty of nations. While in Full Metal Jacket we witness the results of abandoning individuals schooled in unquestioning obedience to orders from superiors to their fate and the consequences of failed decision making, in A Few Good Men I feel we go a step further, we see the genesis of the error in judgment and move from consequences to reparations. I guess Aaron Sorkin had a bit more to say regarding the subject, sorry Kubrick fans, because here I feel the emotional journey is a bit deeper, though also more unrealistic or cartoonish.
But let’s go step by step, first the inciting incident, right? Well, a couple of soldiers enter the room of the infamous cadet Santiago, tie his hands, feet and put a gag in his mouth. An hour later Santiago is pronounced dead by the internist at the Guantanamo Bay base. Daniel Kaffe (Tom Cruise), a dumbass lawyer who has won all his cases without going to trial, is entrusted with the defense of the accused soldiers and becomes acquainted with the events, proving time and again that he is not prepared for what is coming. Daniel is a child, plain and simple, Aaron Sorkin is serious about choosing the character furthest from the self revelation to set up his dramatic arc, which is fine in a way. But unfortunately in practice this is one of the weak points of the story, as Daniel’s initial reactions are too over the top, too cartoonish to be considered plausible and kinda ruin the experience. One scene that I really find a bit ridiculous is the one where he walks into Lt. Colonel Joanne Galloway’s (Demi Moore) office with an apple in his mouth, proving to everyone that he doesn’t respect or value military discipline (something that will change during the movie).
Truth of the matter is Santiago was a mediocre soldier and the high command, in this case Colonel Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson), wanted to teach him a lesson. A thing the military calls “code red”, however, Santiago suffered from a heart condition and dies in the middle of the reprimand that the two soldiers accused of murder give him under the orders of his superiors. Thus the battle and the obstacles become clear, in order for Daniel to successfully defend the accused soldiers he will have to directly confront Nathan, who is the epitome of the chain of command, the patriarch par excellence, but not only him, but a whole system of beliefs protected by words like justice and honor that are at the heart of the military institution that Daniel despises so much (here there’s a slight hint to Daniel’s relationship with his father, who was a relentless defender of civil rights). However, as I said before, Daniel is a child so the road will be long and tortuous in his search for truth and justice. A journey that will bring him face to face with a series of threshold guardians, as described by Christopher Vogler in his “The Writer’s Journey” each with major influence over Daniel’s life, all men of strong opinions, dominant men. You see, it turns out that Daniel lived in a world of protection, a childlike world protected both by his litigation skills and his father’s reputation and also by the men in his own life, colleagues and friends who kept him in a childlike state. As Herman Hesse rightly said, to be born you have to break a shell and the shell Daniel has to break is the comfortable position he finds himself in, far from conflict and his own vision of the world, used to taking the easy route.
And well, the most interesting thing about the film I think is the trial, which is apparently Aaron Sorkin’s forte (I think I heard him talk about this somewhere). The thing is, the trial has its own structure and it’s also a constant battle between Daniel and his friend/rival Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) to impose the truth on the facts. We go from the motives for committing the crime to the mode, to Daniel’s theory, to the presentation of star witnesses and at the same time we understand all these individuals, all these military men who confuse honor with self-preservation, who confuse discipline with fanaticism and a revelation in the middle of the trial, a lie in the testimony of one of the accused soldiers, throws Daniel into crisis and his metaphorical death, falling back into childish behaviors, which now appear as a defense against frustration. And it is then that Daniel understands, the only way to win is to face the dragon head on.
The final sequence of the film, the climax of all this drama, stars Daniel and Colonel Nathan R. Jessep. A back and forth between the two that takes the tension to the limit and finally forces the colonel to tell the truth, not only he was the one who gave the order for the code red, but also he thinks it was the right decision (along with the famous dialogue “you can’t handle the truth!”). And that is how the truth ends up being the sword that cuts the head of the dragon, which leads him to fall and to lay bare the shortcomings of the chain of command immersed in the arrogance of the glories of the past, of the archaic way of seeing conflicts and an imperious need for renewal.
And I think that’s all I can say about A Few Good Men, a film that may not start off well, but that gradually builds a complex drama where the truth passes from one side to the other, takes on nuances and concepts such as honor and discipline are put to the test over and over again, perhaps proving to us that true honor is found in the decisions one makes as an individual, with the freedom and responsibility that this entails.