``A Few Good Men'goes AWOL Reason abandons military justice film

December 11, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"A Few Good Men" just goes to show: Military justice movies are to movies what military music is to music -- loud, showy, entertaining and utterly trivial.

The film is certainly shrewdly constructed and commercial as all get out; it offers a couple of hotshot movie stars a platform for some of their slickest acting in years, and each guy -- Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson -- shoots for the moon. It's everything a movie should be, except thought-provoking. Sit back and enjoy the ride; just don't expect to get anywhere.

Cruise plays a spoiled young Harvard lawyer named Dan Kaffee skating through a three-year hitch in the Navy primarily by logging as little office time as possible. He's only here (Washington, D.C.) out of homage to his deceased father, once the Navy's advocate general. Known as Lt. Plea Bargain, he's somewhat irked to be delivered a case that the Navy wants buried: Two Marines down at Guantanamo Bay assaulted another Marine late one night, resulting in the victim's death under ambiguous circumstances. His instincts: plea bargain down to manslaughter two and let the boys walk in less than three years.

But another lawyer assigned to the case as an investigator -- a woman, Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway, played by the perhaps too beautiful Demi Moore -- shames him into digging deeper into the case where he uncovers suggestions of a command conspiracy and a coverup. This quickly brings him into conflict with the Marine colonel at the base, a pure-warrior type played with the friendliness of a puff adder by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessep is Marine OD to the level of his DNA, the sort of officer who would consider a ramrod's posture sadly remiss. But he's no martinet: Nicholson's great contribution to the part isn't his bluster or high-octane machismo, but his sly suggestion that such men aren't quite the one-dimensional toads the movies so frequently convey; though powerful, Colonel Jessep is also brilliant, and Nicholson lets us see how quickly and cleverly his mind works.

That's the best part of the movie, the flaming antagonism between the glib lawyer who may not quite be as shallow as he seems and the zealous ranking officer, a true believer to his underwear. It feels almost like a theological dispute between priesthoods, with the secular and humane Navy coming head-to-head with the fiercely Jesuitic Marine Corps. You could say both are professional fighting men, but it turns out that men who fight with missiles have very little in common with men who fight with bayonets.

If only Aaron Sorkin's shallow screenplay, derived from his shallow play, were more resonant and less interested in providing showy moments for the actors.

The New York Times' drama critic Frank Rich came under a lot of heat in 1989 for being the only critic who didn't like the play, but reading Rich's piece now it seems clear he saw what was on the stage and what was not. It's equally applicable to the movie:

"The why-and-whodunit solutions prove unsurprising, and to reach them, the author force-feeds laborious clues into the action, some errant luggage tags among them. For a subplot, Mr. Sorkin charts the slowly blossoming alliance of three ill-matched defense lawyers, each of whom comes with a single psychological characteristic whose cause may also be affixed like a luggage tag."

Sorkin, under director Rob Reiner's guidance, has made some changes in the last act, which it seems to me is not as good as the original. Instead of a single piece of evidence that brings the villain down, the mechanics of the play now turn on much wispier conceits. For one thing, Cruise labors mightily to catch Nicholson in a "paradox," which might be impressive at Harvard but would have utterly no meaning in a court of military law. In fact, the whole last act is something of a come-down from the level of tension of the first two.

Other small irritations intrude. The dialogue is somehow too stage-clever for the more naturalistic medium of the feature film. You can see Sorkin showing off his glib little nuggets of wit, his well-polished quips, his cleverly turned lines ad nauseam. It doesn't sound like talking, it sounds like "dialogue." Nobody is this clever, except in the movies! And why have Kiefer Sutherland play the Marine's platoon leader in a phony, inconsistent Southern accent? Why not get a real Southerner?

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