A Few Good Men

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel “Danny” Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is an inexperienced and unenthusiastic U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps lawyer who leads the defense in the court-martial of two U.S. Marines, Private First Class Louden Downey (James Marshall) and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison), who are accused of having murdered a fellow Marine of their unit, PFC William Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo), at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, which is under the command of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson).

Santiago compared unfavorably to his fellow Marines, had poor relations with them, and failed to respect the chain of command. He went above his superiors to bargain for a transfer in exchange for blowing the whistle on Dawson for firing a possibly illegal shot towards the Cuban side of the island. When the transfer request is seen by the base’s senior commanders, there is a heated argument between Santiago’s commanding officer, 1st Lieutenant Jonathan Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), who asserts that he can handle the situation, and Jessup’s executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Andrew Markinson (J.T. Walsh), who casts doubt on Kendrick’s ability based on a past incident. Markinson advocates that Santiago be transferred immediately for safety reasons before the request gets out, but Jessup says that this would set a bad precedent which could cost lives. Jessup also states that officers have a responsibility to ensure that all personnel are trained, so he orders Kendrick to ensure that Santiago shows significant improvement on the next evaluation report, or he would be held personally responsible. When Dawson and Downey are later arrested for Santiago’s murder, Naval investigator and lawyer Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) suspects that they were carrying out a “code red”: a euphemism for a violent extrajudicial punishment.

Galloway requests to defend them, but the case is instead given to Kaffee, who has a reputation for arranging plea bargains. There is initial friction between them, as she believes he negotiates plea bargains to avoid having to argue in court, and he claims that she is interfering with his handling of the case. However, their relationship strengthens as the trial progresses, as does Kaffee’s effectiveness as a lawyer.

Despite goading by Galloway and Dawson to allow the trial to go to court, Kaffee initially tries to step down as lead counsel for the defense – his argument being that since he cannot prove that any order was given for the assault, it would be a futile gesture to make a legal stand that the Marines did as they were told. However, Galloway successfully argues her point of view to Kaffee after Dawson and Downey state they were ordered by Lieutenant Kendrick (under the orders of Jessup) to shave Santiago’s head, minutes after Kendrick ordered the platoon not to touch the would-be victim. Santiago actually died from asphyxiation after a rag was shoved into his mouth as a gag.

Kaffee comes to realize that for a legal officer of his limited time and experience to be given such an important case is unusual. He accepts that he was probably assigned to it due to his reputation for plea bargaining. As this would be an indication that someone high up did not want the case to reach court, he changes his mind and agrees to proceed. Kaffee’s suspicions are confirmed when he rejects a plea bargain offer from prosecutor Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) — a friend of his — who warns that the government’s case against the two Marines is strong and that Kaffee could risk his reputation (including court martial and being discharged from the Navy) for any attempt to smear high-ranking officers in making a futile defense.

In the course of the trial, it is established that “code reds” are standard in Guantanamo Bay as a means of enforcing discipline and getting sloppy Marines to follow procedure. Kaffee especially goes after Kendrick, particularly over the fact that he denied Dawson a promotion after the latter helped out a fellow Marine who was under what could be seen as a “code red”.

Lieutenant Colonel Markinson has gone absent without leave since the incident, but he re-surfaces in Kaffee’s car during the trial, revealing that Jessup never intended to transfer Santiago off the base as previously claimed but created the transfer orders as part of a cover-up a few days after Santiago’s death. Kaffee is unable to find evidence corroborating these claims and announces his intention to have Markinson testify. Rather than publicly dishonor himself and the Marine Corps, Markinson sends a letter to Santiago’s parents, blaming his own weakness for the loss of their son, outfits himself in full Dress Blue “A” uniform and commits suicide with his service pistol. Without Markinson’s crucial testimony, Kaffee believes that the case is lost and returns home after a drunken stupor, having come to regret that he fought the case instead of considering the plea bargain.

It was also found through cross-examination that Cpl. Dawson had ordered PFC Downey to perform the Code Red with him under Lt. Kendrick’s orders, claiming that Downey’s vehicle malfunction caused him do arrive 15 minutes after the order was given from Kendrick.

Galloway, however, convinces Kaffee to take the great risk of calling Colonel Jessup as a witness. Kaffee initially questions Jessup, contrasting his travel habits versus that of Santiago (who had apparently made no preparations to pack and/or called anyone about leaving the base), in an attempt to argue that the transfer order was never properly conducted. However, Jessup successfully outsmarts Kaffee by saying that he cannot speculate on Santiago’s habits, and he becomes particularly disdainful of Kaffee (pointing out dismissively that Kaffee pinned his clients’ defense on a phone bill) and the court proceedings.

Kaffee is stumped, but then he manages to unnerve Jessup by pointing out a flaw in his testimony. He had stated that Santiago was due to be transferred off the base for his own safety in case the other Marines sought retribution, but also stated that Marines are honorable men who always follow orders – thus if the other Marines were ordered to leave Santiago alone and always follow orders, then Santiago would have been in no danger whatsoever and would not have to be transferred. Under heavy pressure from Kaffee and unnerved by being caught in one of his own lies, Jessup furiously declares, “You can’t handle the truth!” He then dismisses Kaffee as disrespectful of a Marine doing his duty, ultimately confessing that he did order the “code red”. As Jessup angrily justifies his actions on the basis of national security, he is arrested by Ross. Ross informs Kaffee that he will now have Kendrick arrested for Santiago’s murder.

Soon thereafter, Dawson and Downey are found not guilty regarding Santiago’s murder; nonetheless, they are dishonorably discharged for having caused Santiago’s death through their “conduct unbecoming a United States Marine”. Downey does not understand why they are being given dishonorable discharges, but Dawson accepts the verdict, and explains to Downey that they had failed to stand up for those too weak to stand up for themselves, like Santiago. As the two prepare to leave, Kaffee tells Dawson he does not need a patch on his arm to have honor. Dawson, who had previously been reluctant to respect Kaffee as an officer, barks, “Ten hut! There’s an officer on deck!” and salutes Kaffee.


So, this week was the 4th of July. I had planned to watch something military and patriotic, like Men of Honor. Somehow, I added the wrong movie to the Netflix queue and ended up with A Few Good Men. That isn’t to say this isn’t a flick that I had wanted to see, it just wasn’t registering a big enough blip on my radar to even make the queue, initially. Was that a mistake?

What is this about?

When cocky military lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee and his co-counsel, Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway, are assigned to a murder case, their investigation uncovers a hazing ritual that could implicate high-ranking officials.

What did I like?

Real life. Contrary to what some movies would have you believe, people do actually have a sense of humor, even in the most dire of circumstances. I would have never guessed that this film would have had such witty dialogue, but it is fairly light-hearted in places. Don’t get me wrong, once we get to the courtroom, it’s all business. I just found it refreshing that someone decided to portray these characters as human beings, rather than automatons.

Acting. Every now and then a picture will come along that really focuses on the actors’ actual ability to act. I don’t believe there are any special effect in this film, at least that I can recall, so everything is on the cast to bring these characters to life. Not an easy task, but they mange to do it, especially Jack Nicholson. I believe we’ve all seen that powerful and poignant scene where he yells at cruise, “You can’t handle the truth!”. The intensity you see in his eyes there is representative of the kind of performance he gives throughout the film.

Simple, yet satisfying. There are no bells and whistles to make this film special. Yes, this is a military film, but there are no shots fired, no explosions, no nothing, really. The simplistic way in which the film focuses on the plot really caught my attention. Surely we have all grown weary of the constant barrage of CGI explosions and what not. This is a great departure from that formula.

What didn’t I like?

Semper Fi. I was talking to one of my friends that was in the Marines and he was telling me how this film made them look a bit crazy, what with all the traditions and such. Once he said that, I took a couple of minutes to think about it, and yes, they do make the Marines seem like the bad guys, even when all they are doing is following orders from a superior officer.

Cast. With such a great ensemble cast, some get cast by the wayside and underutilized. You can even say that they are nothing more than cameos, such as with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Noah Wyle. As appreciative as I am about the use of people we actually know, as opposed to Joe Schmoe off the street, I wasn’t a fan of the way you bring in all those big names, but don’t use them.

It is hard to believe that I wasn’t stoked about watching A Few Good Men. Sure, it may have been an accidental addition t the queue, but it ended up being a true diamond in the rough. This is a very well made, enjoyable film that should be seen by all. I highly recommend it, especially for those of you that are into the billions of courtroom drama shows that seem to always be on television. Check it out!

4 3/4 out of 5 stars


One Response to “A Few Good Men”

  1. […] military dad that has mysteriously disappeared. If I’m not mistaken, that was the case with A Few Good Men. At any rate, his dad is mentioned twice, but only once do we know that he has mysterious […]

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