A Few Good Men

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Few good men ver2.jpg

Jessep: You want answers?!
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can't handle the truth![1]

A 1989 play made into a 1992 movie directed by Rob Reiner, written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men is a military-themed courtroom drama in which young lawyer Kaffee (Cruise) defends two Marines accused of murder, who say they were acting under orders from Col. Jessep (Nicholson). The movie is mainly famous today for its "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!" Motive Rant at the end.

Tropes used in A Few Good Men include:
  • Affably Evil: Jessep is quite polite and charming which only makes his volatile personality and complete willingness to sacrifice people for his own gain more terrifying.
  • Anachronic Order: Col. Jessup's meeting with his officers about Santiago is depicted after the start of the film.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:

Kaffee: DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED?!
Col. Jessep: YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT I DID!

Kendrick: I like all you navy boys. Every time we go somewhere to fight you boys always give us a ride.

Col. Jessep: "You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances. I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me, so don't think for one second that you can come down here, flash your badge, and make me nervous."

  • Badass Bookworm: Danny Kaffee and Jack Ross both qualify.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Marines get cleared of their charges of murder but not of "conduct unbecoming of a Marine" and are to be dishonorably discharged following the trial. On the other hand, the right man who ordered the attack has been arrested, Kaffee has become respected and learned to take his job seriously, and the Marines accept that they deserve their punishment.
    • Oh, and Kaffee and Galloway don't get together. They just leave.
    • It should also be noted that as far as Dawson and Downey were concerned, getting dishonorably discharged with no jail time was just as bad as getting dishonorably discharged with a life sentence. The right people ended up going to jail, but Dawson and Downey still ended up getting hit with the punishment that was, in their eyes, the worst one possible.
  • Black and Grey Morality: Jessup and Kendrick are certainly the villains here, issuing illegal orders and then denying involvement when things went awry. But Dawson and Downey both display practically no remorse over killing a fellow Marine (accident or not, they entered his cabin with intent to hurt and humiliate), sticking to their belief they did nothing wrong because they were following orders. In the end, they do receive just punishment (a dishonorable discharge) and Dawson realizes it's fair, even if Downey probably would have gone to his grave thinking he was in the right if Dawson didn't spell it out for him. Even Santiago, though put in a difficult situation, was willing to rat on a fellow marine for his own benefit, and may have been knowingly lying about the nature of Dawson's fence shooting in order to get transferred out. None of the three parties come out looking all that great.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Kaffee brings in a pair of Surprise Witnesses to help pressure Jessep at the end. They don't have any actual information.
  • Brick Joke:

Lt. Weinberg: "Cmdr. Galloway, Lt. Kaffee is considered to be the best litigator in our office. He successfully plea bargained 44 cases in 9 months."
Kaffee: "One more and I get a set of steak knives."
Later on when it looks like the case is slipping away from them:
Galloway: "I'm sorry I cost you the steak knives."

  • Brilliant but Lazy: Kaffee is a brilliant attorney with a fantastic mind and charisma. But He'd much rather practice getting his softball swing perfect.
  • Clear Their Name: What Kaffee must do for Dawson and Downey.
  • Cliché Storm: Invoked; Kaffee has a throwaway conversation with the local newsstand vendor involving each of them trying to wryly out-cliche the other.
  • Danger Takes a Backseat: Lt Col Markinson (the highly creepy J.T. Walsh) does this to Kaffee.
  • Deadpan Snarker: This is a Sorkin film so this is expected. Even in a cast full of snark, Kaffee reigns supreme.
  • Dirty Coward: Jessep, who despite his claims of toughness, was willing to throw two Marines under a bus to protect himself.
  • The End: Used straight, in a fairly rare example for such a recent film. Rob Reiner says on the DVD commentary that it felt right, with the story being a sort of old-fashioned morality play.
  • Eureka Moment: Kaffee retrieves his baseball bat from his closet and has an epiphany.

Sam: He does think better with his bat.

Ross: I represent the United States Government without passion or prejudice. And my client has a case.

"I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant. The Marine Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I am aware of are my commanding officer Colonel Nathan R. Jessup and the Lord our God."

Downey: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.
Dawson: Yeah, we did. We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willie.

  • Heroic BSOD: Kaffee goes out and gets rip-roaring drunk after his star witness kills himself.
  • He's Back: "I got my second wind."
  • Honor Before Reason: Why Dawson refuses the plea bargain. The proposed deal would have saved them from prison, but a dishonorable discharge essentially negates everything they'd done in the Corps.
  • Ho Yay: Between Kaffee and Ross. They seem to know each other pretty well, and then there's the whole scene with Cruise sucking on his doughnut-dust-covered finger while Bacon stares him down. And then some of the final lines:

Ross: Strong witnesses.
Kaffee: And handsome too, didn't you think?

  • Hypocrite: For all of his talk about how Marines never disobey orders, Jessup thinks nothing of ignoring the orders of his own superiors because he thinks he knows better. For all of his talk about loyalty, he is more than willing to throw two of his men under the bus to save his own hide.
  • It's All About Me: Jessep has this in spades. He has no remorse for ordering a weak marine killed and only becomes angry when his validity as a soldier is questioned or his orders disobeyed.
  • I Won't Say I'm Guilty: Dawson's position on the Code Red -- yes, he did it, but since his commander ordered him to do it, he won't allow himself to plead.
    • Unusually for this trope, Dawson changes his mind at the end. Having been acquitted for the major crimes, he accepts a dishonorable discharge for "conduct unbecoming a Marine," admitting that he should have stood up for Santiago.
      • Which is partially foreshadowed when he refuses to plea bargain:

"If a court decides that what we did was wrong, I'll accept whatever punishment they give..."

  • Jerkass: Col Jessep. Aside from being the villain, he's also a colossal dick to his underlings.
    • Also Kendrick. He's equally unpleasant to Kaffee and Galloway and becomes equally incensed when his authority is remotely questioned.
  • Knight Templar: Colonel Jessep. He reiterates several times throughout the movie the phrase "We're in the business of saving lives," indicating that he truly believes he's doing the right thing. The view in his courtroom speech might be a reasonable statement of the unique role of the military in protecting a free society and the compromises that come with that. When that turned into ordering assaults on his own men and covering it up...
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Jessep getting charged with Santiago's death after trying to pin it on Dawson and Downey.
  • Lying to the Perp: See Bluffing the Murderer.
  • Mildly Military: Kaffee is chronically tardy, doesn't want Dawson to call him "sir," and plays softball while his clients are sitting in jail. Galloway calls him on it several times, and the Marines can barely contain their disgust.
  • Miranda Rights: Ross recites these after Jessep confesses on the stand.
  • Mistaken Age
  • Motive Rant: A classic. Many, many courtroom drama motive rants since then have been based on it.
  • Never My Fault: Many of the Marines suffer from this, believing that They are above reproach because of the nature of Their work and Their ultimately good intentions. Jessep is the worst for it. Even after admitting to being behind Santiago's death, he's still incised at being held responsible for it, blaming Kaffee. Lowden and Downey have an extreme case of this as well but grow out of it by the end.
  • One-Scene Wonder: Colonel Jessep is such an electrifying character and his presence in the film is so strong that its easy to forget he only appears in a hand full of scenes. But each one is pretty astonishing and he is the originator of the film's famous monologue.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Jessep's justification for his actions.
  • The Perry Mason Method: "You want an answer?" "I want the truth!!"... and so forth.
  • Pet the Dog: During questioning leading up to the only quote anyone seems to remember, Colonel Jessup answers questions about three phone calls. The first two calls are about the military. The third one turns out to be a call to his sister asking her if she wanted to have dinner. For all his flaws as a soldier, he seems to be a decent enough brother.
    • Additionally, when the defense team are down in Cuba we find out that Jessup is a great admirer of Kaffee's late father for his work defending civil rights. He's also Nice to the Waiter.
  • Plea Bargain: Fabulously averted.

"We joined the Marines because we wanted to live our lives by a certain code, and we found it in the Corps. Now you're asking us to sign a piece of paper that says we have no honor. You're asking us to say we're not Marines. If a court decides that what we did was wrong, then I'll accept whatever punishment they give. But I believe I was right sir, I believe I did my job, and I WILL NOT DISHONOR MYSELF, MY UNIT, OR THE CORPS SO I CAN GO HOME IN SIX MONTHS! [beat] Sir.

  • Politically-Incorrect Villain: Col. Jessep's speech about superior officers is shockingly misogynist.
    • Interestingly, Jessep was also wrong. Dr. Antonia Novello was the US Surgeon General when A Few Good Men was released. As the head of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, Surgeons General always hold the rank of vice admiral. Jessep would have been required by law to salute her.
    • He also uses a certain homophobic slur to describe Kaffee's uniform.
      • Jessep disparages the US Navy's white service uniform, which Kaffee and Weinberg are both wearing (Galloway opted to wear the more situational appropriate service khaki). However, because Jessep doesn't single one of the Lieutenants out, his words were likely meant to show his contempt for the US Navy as a whole.
  • Shout-Out: The title, to 12 Angry Men.
  • Shut UP, Hannibal: After Jessep was placed under arrest, Kaffee delivers this line.

Kaffee:Don't call me son. I'm a lawyer, and an officer in the United States Navy, and you're under arrest you son of a bitch.

  • Smug Snake: Jessep and Kendrick.
  • Spanner in the Works: Both Galloway and Dawson are this to Jessup's friends in the Pentagon's attempts to handle Santiago's death quietly. Galloway for actually insisting that Kaffee actually give his clients' due diligence for once instead of rushing straight to the plea bargain, Dawson for telling Kaffee to take his plea bargain and shove it.
  • Take Five

Capt. West: Commander Galloway, why don't you get yourself a cup of coffee?
Lt. Cmdr. Galloway: Thank you, sir, I'm fine.
Capt. West: Commander, I'd like you to leave the room so we can talk about you behind your back.
Lt. Cmdr. Galloway: Certainly, sir.

  • That Was Objectionable: A borderline example. The prosecution puts on a doctor to give his opinion as to the cause of Willie Santiago's death. Lt. Cmdr. Galloway objects on the basis of his qualifications. When the judge overrules her, she "strenuously objects" and is again overruled.

Sam: "Strenuously object"? Is that how it works? "Objection!" "Overruled." "No no no, I strenuously object." "Oh, well if you strenuously object, then I should take some time to reconsider."

    • Her "strenuous objection" prompts the judge to say "The witness is an expert, and the court will hear his opinion;" undermining her own point in front of the court members, which Sam calls her on.
  • Those Two Guys: Dawson and Downey.
  • Token Romance: Thankfully averted. Originally a romance between Tom Cruise and Demi Moore's characters was planned (and stills from a love scene made it to the tabloid news), but was left on the cutting room floor.
    • The subtext is still there though.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Averted, where the night before Jessep is put on the stand, the lawyers have an onscreen meeting about their plan to make him confess, and the next day it's executed perfectly. Roger Ebert cited this as a flaw in the film, saying it's no fun if nothing goes wrong after you've already heard what's going to happen.
    • There is a tiny bit of a speed bump, in that before they go into court that day, Galloway takes Kaffee aside and tells him he should back off of Jessep if he feels like he's not going to crack, and then during the questioning, Jessep's being really intimidating, Kaffee momentarily loses his nerve, Galloway gives him a little shake of the head, Jessep gets up and starts to leave... and then Kaffee pulls it together and takes us home.
    • Besides, the look on Kaffee's face when Jessep confesses, and that speed bump, shows it wasn't executed perfectly, it just turned out how Kaffee hoped.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Jessep has his famous rant, but the real breakdown comes right after when the unflappable Colonel finds he is being charged with Santiago's death, and then lunges screaming at Kaffee, who doesn't even bat an eyelash.
  • Walk and Talk: It first appeared here by accident as Rob Reiner needed a way to move the first scene with Jack and Danny along. It has since become one of Aaron Sorkin's trademark.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Kaffee's late father was of the overachieving variety.
  • You Can Say That Again: Kaffee trades cliches with the guy at his newsstand, resulting in this exchange:

Luther: It ain't over till the fat lady sings.
Kaffee: You can say that again.
Luther: It ain't over till the fat lady sings.
Kaffee: (with him) Fat lady sings. I walked into that one.

  1. The rest of the line is here.