‘A Few Good Men’ (1992) and the You’ve Gotta Ask Me Nicely Moment
Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is a lieutenant and lawyer in the US Navy with a plea bargain winning streak but is paired with go-getter Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), against both their wishes, to defend two Marines charged with killing a fellow soldier at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Kaffee wants to settle while Galloway demands a trial, claiming the men were only following a “code red” order, and while they disagree at first, Kaffee begins to see something isn’t right and finds himself in the one place he’s never been before: inside a courtroom.
Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Aaron Sorkin (based on his play), A Few Good Men is a courtroom drama that pits a brash inexperienced lawyer against a highly decorated, arrogant and powerful military leader so there isn’t much suspense as to the outcome, and with Cruise at the time, starring in a number of films where he is the best at whatever he is doing, that goes double. Cruise is actually quite good though, as is the rest of the cast, but the script suffers a bit in its mistrust of the audience to follow along by spoon-feeding much of the plot well in advance, but Sorkin’s dialogue is so sharp and brimming with tension, it’s easy to forgive the predictability. The character development is strong, especially in the two leads, who refreshingly are not reduced to a sexual (or even emotional) relationship, though this might be one reason why it didn’t find bigger success. The supporting cast, including Kevin Bacon, Keifer Sutherland, Kevin Pollak, and of course, Jack Nicholson, give much of the film its depth though, most effectively in the third act during the courtroom battle. While the story is rigidly one-track, and the villain revealed far too soon, the filmed stage-play feel and the satisfying payoff make this just short of great.
That Moment: Kaffee, Galloway, and Lt. Sam Weinberg (Pollak), Kaffee’s co-counsel, travel to Guantanamo Bay to meet with the commanding officer and begin their investigation. After seeing the victim’s quarters, they sit outside at a lunch table with Colonel Nathan Jessup (Nicholson) along with Lt. Col. Matthew Andrew Markinson (J.T. Walsh) and Lt. Jonathan Kendrick (Sutherland). The meeting is official but cordial with Jessup admitting he even knew Kaffee’s renowned father before he died. The exchange goes well, but there is a palpable tension that comes to a head when, upon their leaving, Kaffee turns back to the Colonel and asks for a copy of the transfer oder allegedly made for the victim. The request is made as an aside, and Jessup, a tinderbox and undemonstrative character pounces with acidity. He is willing to fulfill the request but only if that request is made with respect.
Why it Matters: While the film’s final confrontation between Jessup and Kaffee is the one most remember, it is really a second round of sorts that begins here. Kaffee is all about deduction, analyzing and assessing situations and environments, but most particularly people. It’s his strongest gift, and it has provided him with great success, and a bit of arrogance. He’s always gotten what he wants, and has won his position by manipulating people, even if it is mostly harmless. The point is, he never faced an equal, and with Jessup, that changes. The important thing about that is Kaffee knows it, and he knows it from the start. It’s the very reason he asks Jessup for the unnecessary transfer order and the casual manner in which he does. The haughty, over the shoulder statement about getting the order is entirely staged by Kaffee, a request meant only to get a reaction, which succeeds in a way even he didn’t expect. A master judge of character, Kaffee suspected something about Jessup, a man of tremendous responsibility and great power who is not one for sitting outside at a lunch table with people asking questions. The gamble was pushing the buttons, and once he knew which ones to push, he took the chance. Galloway confirms this later in the story when she tries to convince Kaffee to go after Jessup on the stand and get a confession, something she recognized right away as a ploy on Kaffee’s part. Watching the scene, we can see she is making that assessment of Kaffee as he and Jessup speak. She knows that what Kaffee is doing is just outside the line of respect, and makes the right assumption that what he is doing is precisely planned. This moment is really the most crucial in the film as it demonstrates two important character traits in the story’s protagonist and antagonist. Kaffee, the hero, can elicit a great passion from within a person, be it for the love of one’s career, as Galloway reveals over a professional dinner, or for authority, as Jessup ceaseless demands. Jessup, the villain, also reveals his weakness in executing that authority at the cost of transparency. He would rather people know he is the one in charge, no matter what the consequences. These traits, hinted at here, are fully exploited in the final moments, echoed with similar style but far greater resonance.