There are few screenwriters whose dialogue has as much punch and brilliance as Aaron Sorkin. I was reminded of this while watching Moneyball again the other day. He made a movie about the process of using analytics to make an average baseball team better captivating. It made me want to dive into what I consider to be the finest script of his film career – A Few Good Men (1992, dir. Rob Reiner).
A Few Good Men is based on the play also written by Sorkin. It centers around a marine who was accidentally killed during an intrasquad disciplinary ritual known as a Code Red. The marines who killed him are arrested, and the subsequent trial becomes more about the necessity of this practice – and the motives of those who would order it – than it does about the accidental death of a marine. It also raises questions about what it truly means to follow a code of ethics.
The film features top notch performances throughout, most notably Tom Cruise as Lt. Daniel Kaffee – the chief counsel for the two marine defendants – and Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan Jessup – the commanding officer who ordered the disciplinary tactic. It almost feels unfair to single out those two performances as you also cannot help but admire the work of Kevin Bacon (prosecuting attorney Jack Ross), Kevin Pollak (Sam Weinberg, assistant attorney for the defense), Demi Moore (JoAnn Galloway, assistant counsel for the defense), and Kiefer Sutherland (platoon leader for both the defendants and the deceased).
Courtroom procedurals are as commonplace in the movies as anything else. It is easy to understand why that is the case. You have a built-in dramatic arc wherein you can reveal new information gradually and the conclusion is waiting for you the entire film. The trick is to make that journey interesting and have a unique payoff. I find the ending of A Few Good Men to be remarkably similar to the ending of Rocky in that the good guy gets to win but does not get to win everything.
The big strength, however, is still the dialogue. There are some flaws in the script (Roger Ebert notably downgraded the film in his review because the script spelled out too much of the courtroom strategy), but none of those flaws apply to that trademark Sorkin-esque back and forth where every person is the smartest person in the room and always says the exact right thing. That kind of dialogue can sometimes come across as elitist – making it difficult to connect to his characters. In this case, you never feel that. Instead, you find yourself realizing that each of these characters truly IS the smartest person in the room. There is such depth to each of them that you cannot help but feel aligned with virtually every character in some way throughout the film. As I have said before in this space, I am always going to be a sucker for a film that makes me choose a side and then has me questioning my initial choice. It should be noted that you likely will not side with everyone, but you will at least come to gain an understanding for every point of view presented even if you only agree with one side. As the film says, the rest of it is just “smoke-filled coffee house crap.”
FUN FACT – Wolfgang Bodison plays Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson – the senior of the two marines charged with the murder. He had never acted on screen prior to this but was rather a location scout for the production team. After struggling to find the right type in auditions, Rob Reiner suggested Bodison screen test, and he won the role.
Just Watch says that A Few Good Men is streaming on DirecTV, TNT, and Freevee. Additionally, it is available for rent or purchase on most streaming platforms.