The Story: A mano a mano monster marathon. A Clash of the Titans. That's what this post, dealing with the climactic scene from "A Few Good Men," is.*
It is also a study of contrasts in acting styles: in the one corner, Jack Nicholson, the vet—all stillness, contained (until he becomes explosive); in the other, Tom Cruise, superstar—on his feet, active—maybe too active. At the time this variation of "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" came out, I was crowing that Cruise was incapable of showing more than one emotion at a time, and it is a problem here. Director Reiner has already established Kaffee's "ah-hah" moment, so in this scene, Cruise (with Reiner's aid, of course) is seemingly feigning that he doesn't have a strategy and Cruise registers that on-face as doubt, indecision and anxiety. Should he really be showing that, as his main strategy is to badger Jessep into "The 'Perry Mason' Moment" ("I'm GLAD I killed him! GLAD, I tell ya! Ha ha ha ha ha!"), and Jessep has more trouble with authority than weakness? Dramatically, it works—it's a feint to keep the audience in suspense—but it's false.
Given that weakness in the presentation that is not Cruise's fault, you still have to say that he's over-the-top throughout this scene. Smug when he shouldn't be, too much arm movement—he's acting like this is a physical performance and it is NOT, as a lot of the drama is contained in Reiner's shot choices and cutting scheme—and he can be accused of mugging a bit here. Movies go by at 24 frames per second; Video at 30 frames per. That's an awful lot of still pictures to choose from in the culling of screen-captures. When I do this process, I try to favor the artist—I choose that one clip that makes them look their best, or communicates their point, and I avoid "goofy" transition points of expression as a rule.
It was very hard with Tom Cruise.
Handsome guy, sure. A superb light comedian, as he's proved from "Risky Business" to "Knight and Day." I got no dogs in this fight. But, it was tough to pick shots where he looked good, and not silly (and I couldn't avoid it, entirely). In heavy dramas, Cruise can be just too damned intense, a 150-watt bulb in a 40-watt socket.
"And then, there's Jack." Since "Easy Rider," Nicholson has always been the coolest cucumber in the vegetable stand, but back in the day, struggling through B-movies and horror pics, he was right where Cruise is here, mugging intensely, pushing too hard, and flailing about. Funny to think about watching him here, sitting at relaxed attention, economically moving his head, for the most part placid, until the brow furrows and the entire face darkens. Even in the most ferocious sections, when that million dollar smile turns into sharks' teeth, and his eyes stay lazer-targetted on one spot, it's all in his face and his posture. An amazing performance, really. One for the ages.
In the movie, he may lose the case, but he sure wins this battle.
The Set-Up: Two Marines (Wolfgang Bodison, James Marshall) are being court-martialed for the beating death of Private Santiago while stationed at the Guantanamo Station in Cuba under the command of Marine Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), a powerful member of the Marine Armed Services. The defendant's JAG lawyer Jo (Demi Moore) has recruited the services of Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), the son of a respected litigator and senator, but who himself has never tried a case, choosing instead to work plea-deals. Truth is, Kaffee's a bit of a slacker, greasing his way through the Navy, the law, and through life. With his investigator Lt. Weinberg (the terrific Kevin Pollak), they've built up a case based on the defendants claims that they were ordered to "discipline" Santiago as part of a secret hazing regimen called a "Code Red," a charge that has been denied by Jessep, his adjutant Martinson (J.T. Walsh) and Lt. Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland), who state that Santiago was being given a transfer, something the late marine had long sought. Martinson was going to testify against his well-regarded commander, but chose, instead, to commit suicide. Kaffee is forced to argue a case with no evidence, no collaborating testimony, only doctored records, and the taciturn denial of the Guantanamo commanders. In a last desperate bid, the defense has called the prideful Col. Jessep to the stand.
Things do not appear to be going well.
KAFFEE gets a document from his table.
KAFFEE(continuing) After Dawson and Downey's arrest on the night of the sixth, Santiago's barracks room was sealed off and its contents inventoried.
JESSEP (reading) Pairs of camouflage pants, 6 camouflage shirts, 2 pairs of boots, 1 pair of brown shoes, 1 pair of tennis shoes, 8 khaki tee-shirts, 2 belts, 1 sweater --
ROSS Please the Court, is there a question anywhere in our future?
RANDOLPH Lt. Kaffee, I have to --
KAFFEE I'm wondering why Santiago wasn't packed.
That landed. On the JURY, RANDOLPH, ROSS...
KAFFEE (continuing) I'll tell you what, we'll get back to that one in a minute.
JO hands KAFFEE the computer printout.
KAFFEE (continuing) This is a record of all telephone calls made from your base in the past 24 hours. After being subpoenaed to Washington, you made three calls.
Handing Jessep the printout --
KAFFEE (continuing) I've highlighted those calls in yellow. Do you recognize those numbers, sir?
JESSEP I called Colonel Fitzhuqhes in Quantico, Va. I wanted to let him know I'd be in town. The second call was to set up...
JESSEP ...a meeting with Congressman Ramond of the House Armed Services Committee,
JESSEP ...and the third call was to my sister Elizabeth.
KAFFEE Why did you make that call, sir?
JESSEP I thought she might like to have dinner tonight.
ROSS Judge --
RANDOLPH I'm gonna put a stop to this now.
Jo's handed KAFFEE another printout and a stack of letters.
KAFFEE Your honor, these are the telephone records from GITMO... KAFFEE ...for September 6th.
KAFFEE And these are 14 letters that Santiago wrote in nine months requesting, in fact begging, for a transfer.
KAFFEE (to JESSEP) Upon hearing the news that he was finally getting his transfer, Santiago
was so excited, that do you know how many people he called? Zero. Nobody.
KAFFEE Not one call to his parents saying he was coming home.
KAFFEE Not one call to a friend saying can you pick me up at the airport. He was asleep in his bed at midnight...
KAFFEE ...and according to you...
KAFFEE ...he was getting on a plane in six hours,
KAFFEE ...and yet everything he owned was hanging neatly in his closet and folded neatly in his footlocker. You were leaving for one day and...
KAFFEE ...you packed a bag and made three phone calls.
KAFFEE Santiago was leaving for the rest of his life, and he hadn't called a soul and he hadn't packed a thing.
KAFFEE Can you explain that?
KAFFEE The fact is there was no transfer order. Santiago wasn't going anywhere, isn't that right, Colonel.
ROSS Your Honor, it's obvious that Lt. Kaffee's intention this morning is to smear a high ranking marine officer in the...
ROSS ...desperate hope that the mere appearance of impropriety will win him points with the jury.
ROSS It's my recommendation, sir, that Lt. Kaffee receive an official reprimand from the bench, and that the witness be excused with the Court's deepest apologies.
RANDOLPH ponders this a moment.
RANDOLPH (pause) Overruled.
ROSS Your honor --
RANDOLPH The objection's noted.
KAFFEE (beat) Colonel?
...and now he can't help but let out a short laugh.
KAFFEE (continuing) Is this funny, sir?
JESSEP No. It's not. It's tragic.
KAFFEE Do you have an answer?
JESSEP Absolutely. My answer is I don't have the first damn clue. Maybe he was an early morning riser and he liked to pack in the nq. And maybe he didn't have any friends.
I'm an educated man, but I'm afraid I can't speak intelligently about the travel habits of William Santiago.
What I do know is that he was set to leave the base at 0600.
JESSEP ...are these really the questions I was called here to answer? Phone calls and footlockers?
JESSEP Please tell me you've got something more, Lieutenant. Please tell me there's an ace up your sleeve.
JESSEP These two marines are on trial for their lives. Please tell me their lawyer hasn't pinned their hopes to a phone bill.
JESSEP Do you have any other questions for me, counselor?
The courtroom is silenced. Jessep's slammed the door.
KAFFEE looks around the room, sees that the world is waiting for him to do something...
KAFFEE says nothing. He glances over to AIRMEN O'MALLEY and RODRIGUEZ.
RANDOLPH Lt. Kaffee?
RANDOLPH (continuing) Lieutenant...
...do you have anything further...
...for this witness?
KAFFEE doesn't respond.
JESSEP gets up to leave.
JESSEP (standing) Thanks, Danny. I love Washington.
And JESSEP starts to leave, but he's stopped by --
KAFFEE Excuse me... KAFFEE I didn't dismiss you.
JESSEP turns around.
JESSEP I beg your pardon.
KAFFEE I'm not through with my examination. Sit down.
KAFFEE What's that?
JESSEP (to RANDOLPH) I'd appreciate it if he addressed me as Colonel or Sir. I believe I've earned it.
RANDOLPH Defense counsel will address the witness as Colonel...
RANDOLPH ...or Sir.
JESSEP (to RANDOLPH) I don't know what the hell kind of an outfit you're running here.
RANDOLPH And the witness will address this Court as Judge or Your Honor. I'm quite certain I've earned it.
Take your seat.
Jessep goes back to the stand.
JESSEP (continuing) What would you like to discuss now! My favorite color?
KAFFEE Colonel, the six a.m. flight, was the first one off the base?
KAFFEE There wasn't a flight that left seven hours earlier and landed at Andrews Airforce Base at 2 a.m.?
RANDOLPH Lieutenant, I think we've covered this, haven't we?
KAFFEE gets the two log books from his table as well as the piece of paper that SAM scribbled on.
KAFFEE Your Honor, these are the Tower Chief's Logs for both Guantanamo Bay and Andrews Airforce Base. The Guantanamo log
KAFFEE ...lists no flight that left at eleven p.m., and the Andrews log lists no flight that landed at 2 a.m. I'd like to admit them as Defense Exhibits "A" and "B".
RANDOLPH I don't understand. You're admitting evidence of a flight that never existed?
KAFFEE We believe it did, sir.
(glancing at the paper, then motioning to the AIRMEN)
KAFFEE Defense'll be calling Airman Cecil O'Malley
and Airman Anthony Rodriguez.
KAFFEE They were working the ground crew at Andrews at two a.m. on the seventh.
ROSS Your Honor, these men weren't on the list.
JO Rebuttal witnesses, Your Honor, called specifically to refute testimony offered under direct examination.
If you looked closely at JESSEP, you could see a drop of sweat.
RANDOLPH I'll allow the witnesses.
JESSEP This is ridiculous.
KAFFEE Colonel, a moment ago --
JESSEP Check the Tower Logs for christ's sake.
KAFFEE We'll get to the airmen in just a minute, sir.
KAFFEE ...A moment ago
KAFFEE ...you said that you ordered Kendrick to order his men not to touch Santiago.
JESSEP That's right.
KAFFEE And Kendrick was clear on what you wanted?
KAFFEE Any chance Kendrick ignored the order?
JESSEP Ignored the order?
KAFFEE Any chance he just forgot about it?
KAFFEE Any chance Kendrick left your office and said, "The 'old man's wrong"?
KAFFEE When Kendrick spoke to the platoon and ordered them not to touch Santiago, any chance they ignored him?
JESSEP Have you ever spent time in an infantry unit, son?
KAFFEE No sir.
JESSEP Ever served in a forward area?
KAFFEE No sir.
JESSEP Ever put your life in another man's hands?
JESSEP ...ask him to put his life in yours?
KAFFEE No sir.
JESSEP We follow orders, son.
JESSEP We follow orders or people die. It's that simple. Are we clear?
KAFFEE Yes sir.
JESSEP Are we clear?
KAFFEE speaks with the quiet confidence that comes from knowing you're about to drop your opponents
KAFFEE(continuing; beat) Colonel, I have just one more question before I call Airman O'Malley and Airman Rodriguez: KAFFEE If you gave an order that Santiago wasn't to be touched...
KAFFEE ...and your orders are always followed,then why would he be in danger,
why would it be necessary to transfer him off the base?
And JESSEP has no answer.
He sits there, and for the first time, seems to be lost.
JESSEP Private Santiago was a sub-standard marine. He was being transferred off the base because --
KAFFEE But that's not what you said. You said he was being transferred because he was in grave danger.
JESSEP (pause) Yes. That's correct, but --
KAFFEE You said, "He was in danger". I said, "Grave danger?" You said --
JESSEP Yes, I recall what --
KAFFEE I can have the Court Reporter read back your --
JESSEP I know what I said. I don't need it read back to me like I'm a damn --
KAFFEE Then why the two orders?
KAFFEE Why did you --
JESSEP Sometimes men take matters into their own hands.
KAFFEE No sir. You made it clear just a moment ago that your men never take matters into their own hands. Your men follow orders or people die. So Santiago shouldn't have been in any danger at all, should he have, Colonel?
Everyone's sweating now. Everyone but KAFFEE.
JESSEP You snotty little bastard.
ROSS Your Honor, I have to ask for a recess to --
KAFFEE I'd like an answer to the question, Judge.
RANDOLPH The Court'll wait for answer.
KAFFEE If Kendrick told his men that Santiago wasn't to be touched...
KAFFEE ...then why did he have to be transferred?
Jessep is looking at O'MALLEY and PEREZ.
KAFFEE (continuing) Colonel?
JESSEP says nothing.
KAFFEE (continuing) Kendrick ordered the code red, didn't he? Because that's what you told Kendrick to do.
KAFFEE will plow through the objections of ROSS and the admonishments of RANDOLPH.
KAFFEE And when it went bad, you cut these guys loose.
ROSS Your Honor --
RANDOLPH That'll be all, counsel.
KAFFEE You had Markinson sign a phony transfer order --
ROSS Judge --
KAFFEE You doctored the log books.
ROSS Damnit Kaffee!!
KAFFEE I'll ask for the forth time. You ordered --
RANDOLPH You don't have to answer the question...
JESSEP I'll answer the question.
JESSEP You want answers?
KAFFEE I think I'm entitled to them.
JESSEP You want answers?!
KAFFEE I want the truth.
JESSEP You can't handle the truth!
And nobody moves.
JESSEP (continuing) Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You?
JESSEP You, Lt. Weinberg?
JESSEP I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.
JESSEP You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines.
JESSEP You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence...
JESSEP ...while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
JESSEP You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me there.
JESSEP (boasting) We use words like honor, code, loyalty... we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline.
JESSEP I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself...
JESSEP ...to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I'd prefer you just said thank you and went on your way.
JESSEP Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post.
JESSEP Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you're entitled to.
KAFFEE (quietly) Did you order the code red?
JESSEP(beat) I did the job you sent me to do.
KAFFEE Did you order the code red?
JESSEP (pause) You're goddamn right I did.
Silence. From everyone. RANDOLPH, ROSS, the M.P.'s, they're all frozen. JO and SAM are likewise. JESSEP seems strangely, quietly relieved. KAFFEE simply takes control of the room now.
KAFFEE Please the court, I suggest the jury be dismissed so that we can move to an immediate Article 39a Session.
KAFFEE The witness has rights.
"A Few Good Men"
Words by Aaron Sorkin
Pictures by Robert Richardson and Rob Reiner
"A Few Good Men" is available on DVD for Sony Home Video.
* This post is so long, I'll discuss the statistics down here so you can get right to the scene. The issue is 247 screen-caps, which I whittled down whenever I could, but I'd lose shots and expression changes (and there are a lot in Cruise's mercurial performance) so I only ditched a few...and truncated the last bit with Kevin Bacon. As it is, depending on your computer and Internet service, this may take awhile to load. Sorry for the inconvenience.