aaLAWchak: A Few Good Men

Movie: A Few Good Men

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Wolfgang Bodison, James Marshall

Director: Rob Reiner

Year of release: 1992


A Few Good Men is an American legal drama film. It was adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin from his 1989 play of the same name and includes contributions by William Goldman. The film revolves around the court-martial of two U.S. Marines and the tribulations of their lawyers as they prepare a case to defend their clients.


Two U.S. Marines namely Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Louden Downey (James Marshall) are facing a general court-martial, accused of murdering fellow Marine William Santiago at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

Santiago had poor relations with his fellow Marines, compared unfavorably to them, and broke the chain of command in an attempt to get transferred out of Guantanamo. Base Commander Colonel Nathan Jessup ( Jack Nicholson) and his officers argue about the best course of action. While Jessup’s executive officer, Matthew Markinson , advocates that Santiago be transferred, Jessup dismisses the option and instead orders Santiago’s commanding officer, Jonathan James Kendrick, to “train” Santiago to become a better Marine.


While it is believed that the motive in Santiago’s murder was retribution for naming Dawson in a fence line shooting, Naval investigator and lawyer JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) largely suspects Dawson and Downey carried out a “code red” order: a violent extrajudicial punishment. Galloway wants to defend the two, but the case is given to a junior officer Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise). Kaffee and Galloway travel to Guantanamo base Cuba to question Colonel Jessup and others. Under questioning, Jessup claims Santiago was set to be transferred the next day.

When Kaffee negotiates a plea bargain with the prosecutor Ross (Kevin Bacon), Dawson and Downey refuse to go along, insisting that Kendrick had indeed given them the “code red” order and that they never intended Santiago to die.

Markinson disappears. Kaffee plans to have himself removed as counsel as he sees going to trial as pointless. At the arraignment[1], Kaffee unexpectedly enters a plea of not guilty, explaining to Galloway and Weinberg that he realized the reason he was chosen to handle this case was because it was expected he would accept a plea, and the matter would be kept quiet.


After the case begins, Markinson later reveals himself to Kaffee and states that Jessup never ordered a transfer for William Santiago. The defense manages to establish that Dawson had been denied promotion for smuggling food to a Marine who had been sentenced to bread and water, clearly disobeying a direct order.

However, the defense then suffers two major setbacks. Downey, under cross-examination, reveals he was not actually present when Dawson received the supposed “code red” order; and Markinson, after he tells Kaffee that Jessup never ordered the transfer, but, ashamed that he failed to protect a Marine under his command, commits suicide before he can testify.

Galloway encourages Kaffee to call Jessup as a witness, despite the risk of being court-martialed for smearing a high-ranking officer. Jessup spars evenly with Kaffee’s questioning but is unnerved when Kaffee points out a contradiction in his testimony. Jessup stated his Marines never disobey orders and that Santiago was to be transferred for his own safety. After repeatedly being asked the question, he bellows with contempt that, in fact, he did order the “code red.” Jessup tries to leave the courtroom but is promptly arrested.


Dawson and Downey are cleared of the murder and conspiracy charges, but found guilty of “conduct unbecoming” and ordered to be discharged. Dawson accepts the verdict, but Downey does not understand what they did wrong. Dawson explains that they had failed to defend those too weak to fight for themselves, like Santiago. As the two are leaving, Kaffee tells Dawson that he does not need to wear a patch on his arm to have honor. The film ends with Kaffee and Ross exchanging kudos before Ross departs to arrest Kendrick.


A Few Good Men is a good movie but still has the potential to be much better. The lack of suspense in the film fails to keep the audience on its toes and leaves no room for any uncertainty or surprise. The film doesn’t make you work. It doesn’t allow you to figure out things for yourself. It is afraid you’ll miss things if they’re not spelled out for you.

Major values such as honor, good and evil, commitment, ethics, God and country are repeatedly invoked. Director Rob Reiner hasn’t missed a beat in extracting the most out of the material and his actors. Kaffee is a perfect part for Tom Cruise as he portrays the right amount of smugness and bravery when a scene requires it. Demi Moore proves a good and challenging foil, standing up to Kaffee with fire and authority.

But the position of the best performer is reserved for Nicholson. The old pro makes more than the most of his time on screen. 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 that everyone registers strongly.

The film also got nominated for four Academy Awards, including ‘best picture’ and five Golden Globe awards.


This movie shows two sides of the American society. One side argues that those who guard the wall and hold back the enemy can do whatever is necessary to achieve that end. The other says just as vehemently that the rule of law applies equally to all.

This fundamental clash of values permeates not only military life but society at large. Indeed, the real impact of A Few Good Men is apparent when it is seen in this context. The story vividly demonstrates that the problem in American society has never been an absence of values but rather the sharply divisive battle between individuals of deep convictions with completely different systems of moral understanding.

Author : Pragati Pachisia, JCCLC

[1] Arraignment is a formal reading of a criminal charging document in the presence of the defendant, to inform him of the charges against the Defendant.

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