Oscar Vault Monday – A Few Good Men, 1992 (dir. Rob Reiner)

This is one of those movies that I have seen so many times I don’t have an accurate count. It’s also one that I mostly watched edited on television, so when I watched it for the first time on DVD there were so many things that had either been cut out for time or censored for content; it was shocking. Moral of the story: make sure you watch this movie on DVD. My mother and I always joke about how if this movie is on television, no matter what we are doing, we will leave it on because we just have to see that ending scene. It’s definitely one of the greatest endings in film history. A Few Good Men was nominated for four Academy Awards, though it failed to win any: Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor Jack Nicholson and Best Picture. Rob Reiner failed to receive a Best Director nomination despite the Best Picture nod. His place went to Robert Altman for The Player, which failed to receive a Best Picture nomination. Always strange when that happens. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were: The Crying Game, Howard’s End, Scent of a Woman and winner Unforgiven.


Aaron Sorkin originally got the idea for his play A Few Good Men after a conversation he had on the phone with his sister who had just graduated from law school and signed up for a term with JAG. She was on a case that was very similar to the one depicted in the play. After its success off-Broadway, Sorkin sold the movie rights for what is believed to be “well into six figures.” He would team up with director Rob Reiner a few years later for 1995’s The American President. Sorkin went on to win an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for David Fincher’s Best Picture nominee The Social Network and was nominated in the same category the next year along with co-writers Steven Zaillian, Stan Chervin (story) for their work on Best Picture nominee Moneyball.


I love Tom Cruise. He’s been a favorite of mine as long as I can remember. It’s shame he’s so damn good-looking, because I think he has the chops to be a character actor and is often regulated to leading man roles. In this film he plays Lt. Daniel Alistair Kaffee, who specializes in settling cases outside of court. He takes on the complicated court martial of a Lance Corporal and a Private who are accused of murdering a fellow soldier. It is during the run of this case that Kaffee finally realizes his own potential – including stepping into a courtroom for the very first time. Cruise gives a wonderful, layered performance in this film. At times he oozes that charm we all know and love – and that crazy grin – and at others he is a man riddled with self-doubts. He begins a man without much compassion, but as the film progresses, so does Kaffee. In his nearly thirty-year career, Cruise has been nominated for three Academy Award: Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Jerry Maguire (1996) Magnolia (1999, Supporting).


Where do you even begin with Jack Nicholson? He is my favorite actor ever. He will probably always be. He is just so good always. Even if a film is a stinker, you know Jack will come out on top. In a career that is in its 5th decade, Nicholson holds the record for most Oscar nomination for an actor with twelve Oscar nominations (he is also the second most nominated period tied with Katharine Hepburn, who also had twelve; the two trail behind Meryl Streep, who has thirteen nominations. Nicholson has four for Best Supporting Actor: Easy Rider (1969), Reds (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983, won), A Few Good Men (1992) and eight for Best Actor: Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, won), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Ironweed (1987), As Good as It Gets (1997), About Schmidt (2002). With his three wins, he is tied with Walter Brennan (who won three Oscars for Best Supporting Actor) for the most wins by an actor. In this film he plays Col Nathan R. Jessup, who runs the base at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Nicholson only appears in the two-hour-plus film towards the beginning and at the very end of the film, but he gives the most memorable performance for sure. He’s a combination of smugness and repressed, boiling anger. I’ll talk about his final scene at the end of this post. He lost the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance to Gene Hackman in Best Picture winner Unforgiven.


I wrote about my love of Demi Moore when I wrote about Ghost a few weeks back, but I want to reiterate that she is one of my favorite actresses from when I was a little girl. I think she is flawless as Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway, the JAG investigator whose research early on in the film provides the basis of the film: that the accused did not commit murder, but rather were carrying out a “code red” – a ritualized hazing sanctioned by their commanding officers. She is tough and smart and takes no-nonsense from anyone – including Cruise’s Kaffee. Part of why I say you must watch this on DVD and not just on television, has to do with a scene between Moore and Nicholson. I don’t want to spoil it, but it is a doozy and it is highly censored when it’s on television. While I’m on the subject of Moore, I want to mention how I think it’s bullshit that she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her work in Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane, a film that had a huge impact on me as a girl and I realize now, helped me to become the woman I am today.


Kevin Pollak plays as Lt. Sam Weinberg, Kaffee’s right hand man. He is the “straight man” in the film, keeping Kaffee grounded and helping him with his research. He acts as a bit of mentor character to Kaffee as well, delivering some of the film’s most poignant lines.


Who doesn’t love J. T. Walsh? When I watched Good Morning, Vietnam last year and he showed up I was so excited.  It’s a shame we lost him so soon. In this film, he plays Jessup’s right hand man as Lt Colonel Matthew Andrew Markinson. From the minute we are introduced to the character, we know he knows more than he has said and we know he’s covering for an all too calm and collected Jessup. Later in the film, we learn of the base’s hypocrisy through Markinson, whose conscience has gotten the best of him. Walsh is heartbreaking in this role, which is kind of mixture of the same kind of jerk he often played, but one whose in that dark night of the soul.


Because Kevin Bacon is in this movie, the game six degrees with Kevin Bacon branches alllll over Hollywood; there are just so many actors in this ensemble. Bacon’s another one of those actors that I pretty much always love (even in shitty movies like Picture Perfect). In this film he plays prosecutor Capt Jack Ross, who is buddies with Cruise’s Kaffee. I like how this friendship shines through, despite their antagonism towards each other professionally. I think Sorkin did a great job of showing a balance between the prosecutor and the defense and why both are necessary, even if this film gives more time to the defense side. On a purely psychical note, let’s take some time to stare at Bacon’s chiseled jaw and neck for a little bit, shall we?


Kiefer Sutherland has pretty much made a career out of playing creeps. He is good a playing creeps. I don’t think I would believe him as anything but a creep (confession: I’ve never actually seen an episode of 24). Here he plays 1st Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick, who works just under Markinson and Jessup. According to the defense’s theory, Kendrick was told by Jessup to order the code red that Pvt. Downey and Lance Corporal Dawson committed on Pvt. Santiago, who then died, thus necessitating the court martial. Kendrick is clearly a protegé of Jessup and oozes the same smugness and stifled anger. It’s a great performance from Sutherland, who rarely disappoints. Side note: if you haven’t seen Freeway, I highly recommend that you do.


The two accused of the crime Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Pvt. Louden Downey (James Marshall) aren’t really seen much throughout the film, aside from a few shots here and there of them sitting and observing the trial. They do, however, get a few great scenes. Their initial processing by Kaffee is harsh and brutal, as are their questioning during the trial. The film ends with the two are acquitted of murder, but found guilty of conduct unbecoming and sentenced to be dishonorably discharged. Downey’s response is heartbreaking in that he truly does not understand that he was played like a pawn and Dawson’s final realization of what it is they did that was wrong cuts the viewer to the core. I don’t think I’ve seen Bodison in anything before, but fans of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks with recognize James Marshall immediately.


Although J.A. Preston was active in film and television for over three decades (most notably with his stint as Mayor Ozzie Cleveland on Hill Street Blues in the mid-80s),  he largely remains one of those “that guy” type actors. He gets a chance to really shine as Judge (Col) Julius Alexander Randolph, whose mediation of the court martial plays a pivotal role in the final reveal in the third act. I just love the scene where Nicholson’s Jessup tells Kaffee that he’s earned the right to be called Colonel or Sir and then sasses the judge and the judge says he should address him as Judge or Your Honorm because he’s pretty sure he’s earned it as well. Damn straight.


Speaking of Bacon’s six degrees, Noah Wyle, best known for his bajillion season on E.R.,  has small role as Cpl Jeffrey Owen Barnes, whose testimony helps shine a light on life on the base.


Also in a small role is Cuba Gooding, Jr., a year after his breakthrough in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, as Cpl Carl Hammaker, who also gives testimony about life under Jessup on the base. Four years later, Gooding went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire. He also has a dandy of a role in James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets opposite Jack Nicholson.


Which brings us to the ending. Just look at these men shouting. Just look at it! This line was voted by the American Film Institute as the 29th greatest line in all of American cinema. It’s definitely a line that entered the cultural lexicon immediately and has not left since. This scene is so perfect. It’s tense and it’s fiery and it’s pretty much everything for which cinema was invented. It is two actors at the top of their game and it will be a scene that won’t be long forgotten. The film itself was voted by the AFI as the fifth greatest courtroom drama in American film and I can’t say that I disagree.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on December 17, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. A travesty that A FEW GOOD MEN didnt win a bunch of awards.

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