Written with dazzling wit by Aaron Sorkin from his play, A Few Good Men bristles with intelligence, humor and courtroom interest and excitement. This is certainly Rob Reiner’s best film, but his direction of the actors, few of them good to begin with, has yielded a plethora of inept performances. Sorkin’s tendency to crank up gratuitous soap opera, which always impeded the pleasure of his television series The West Wing, also gets in the way. But the hugely popular film can withstand any number of viewings.
Who doesn’t know by now that Sorkin drew the idea for the play from his sister, Deborah? During a phone conversation when she was bringing her brother up to speed, this then-member of the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps mentioned her next assignment: the defense of a group of Marines at Guantánamo Bay who had nearly killed another Marine after a superior officer ordered them to assault the troublesome fellow in order to straighten him out. From this, Sorkin fashioned a peacetime consideration of smug military authority and the competing claims of military obedience and discipline on the one hand and proper, humane conduct on the other. Heading the defense team, Lt. Daniel Kaffee engineers a courtroom showdown with a hostile star witness: Col. Nathan R. Jessep, the U.S. Marines commander at Guantánamo who is politically ascending until he crashes and burns in open court. While it strains credulity that Tom Cruise might outfox Jack Nicholson, they both play this clash of their characters for all it is worth, and Nicholson (best supporting actor, National Board of Review, Chicago critics) is indeed brilliant. By film’s end, one is close to tears.
But we don’t need Kaffee’s dead father’s shadow or one defendant’s rhetorical closing speech.
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