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A Few Good Men (1992)

Updated on February 2, 2014
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Introduction

Produced and directed by Rob Reiner and adapted from Aaron Sorkin's screenplay of the same name from the late 1980s, 'A Few Good Men' showcased the court marshal of two US Marines being tried by the US Naval JAG for involuntary manslaughter of a fellow marine at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Starring Tom Cruise and Demi Moore in lead roles as defense attorneys for the two marines along with Jack Nicolson as the primary antagonist and Kevin Bacon as the chief prosecutor, the movie's theme primarily revolved around the tussle between the Naval administrative and legal establishment versus officers at remote barracks (like Guantanamo Bay) who secretly endorse the practice of 'Code Reds' - the practice of enlisted men disciplining their own in order to train them into making better marines.

Other supporting roles included those by Kevin Pollak, Wolfgang Bodison, James Marshall, JT Walsh and Keifer Sutherland.

The movie was both a box office and critical success, being nominated for 4 Academy Awards including 'Best Picture' and became world famous for the line spoken by Jack Nicolson's character during the film's final moments, "You Can't Handle The Truth!" - which has been considered one of the 30 most famous movie lines ever spoken within a Hollywood film.




Opening credits

The Murder of PFC. William Santiago

As the film begins, the scene opens at a night-time setting at the US Marine base at Windward, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Two marines, Lance-Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and PFC Louden Downey (James Marshall) enter the barracks of a fellow marine, PFC William Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo) and physically attack him by tying his hands up and stuffing a rag down his throat - It is later revealed that Santiago died from this attack and the two marines were arrested within two hours of the incident.



A Few Good Men - Explainatory trailer

Lt Daniel Kaffee and Lt Cmdr JoAnne Galloway

Meanwhile, back in Washington DC and the home of the United States Navy JAG Corps, Lt.Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) (Special counsel for Internal Affairs) learns about the incident down at Windward Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and requests her commanding officer, Captain West at JAG headquarters that she be assigned as lead counsel to defend the two marines who've been flown up to Washington to stand trial and a possible general court marshal.

Lt Commander Galloway's got a good track record of being an investigator but doesn't have experience in fighting actual cases as it is mentioned she's only fought 3 cases over the past two years and this brings her ability to be a trial lawyer in question. She's advised that the lead Naval Divisional office will be assigning counsel to defend the two marines while she'll simply oversee that he's doing everything by the book during the course of this trial - The assigned lead counsel turns out to be Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) who'll be assisted during the trial by evaluating officer and observation officer Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack).

Daniel Kaffee's is shown to be an easy going naval officer and a Harvard University pass-out. Despite his intelligence, he's shown to have a lack-luster approach towards his career in the Navy and despite being considered the best litigator in his division, he's barely seen a courtroom to fight a defense as he tends to plea bargain almost every case he receives. It is also implied that Daniel feels overshadowed by his own father's success in the Navy and also as former US Attorney General and hence he tends to take the easy route when handling a defense for his client by entering plea bargains.




A Few Good Men (Another trailer)

Kaffee and the Marines - Initial meetings

After the initial character portrayals of Daniel Kaffee and JoAnne Galloway, the film flashes back to a time period prior to the murder of William Santiago, and into the office of the Commanding officer of the Windward Marine Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Colonel Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson), his Executive Officer, Lt. Colonel Markinson (J.T. Walsh) and the Platoon commander, Lt. Jonathan Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland).

It is revealed that a letter written by William Santiago to the Naval Investigative Service has been intercepted straight into Nathan Jessep's hands (after due intervention by the NIS who've agreed to send an officer to investigate the letter Santiago had written to them)..As it is shown that Jessep's reading his letter to his XO and the Platoon Commander, the audience is shown that Santiago had been begging for a transfer from RFC Windward as he's simply unable to cope with the pressures of the rigors of training to be a marine at Guantanamo Bay due to a multitude of reasons - he's unable to maintain stamina during regular runs and battle drills, feels nauseated and fatigued all the time and in general has been made to feel like an outcast in his own regiment. It is also then revealed that Santiago apparently witnessed an illegal fence-line shooting by one of his squad leader Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and is willing to reveal more details about it to the investigating NIS officer in exchange for an expedited transfer out of RFC Windward.

Upon reading the full letter, Colonel Jessep discusses this brewing situation with Lt Col Markinson and Lt Commander Kendrick and says that in order to prevent the situation from escalating further, Santiago needs to be trained further to the levels of a fully qualified and trained marine and orders Kendrick to setup a performance plan and a training regime for him. Markinson objects to this saying that once word of his letter to the NIS gets out, he's likely to get his head kicked in by members of the other platoon and that his life would be in danger and that he should instead be transferred off the base immediately. Jessep argues that this is bad move as by transferring Santiago, they're admitting the presence of weak marines and that they're risking the lives of Americans by not maintaining the highest standards for a marine infantry unit.

The film then fast forwards to a time when Daniel Kaffee meets his clients, the two marines accused of murder, for the first time along with Sam Weinberg. The Marines tell Kaffee that while they did not intent to kill Santiago, they did want to teach him a lesson about respecting the chain of command and that Santiago shoulder confronted Dawson if he had a problem with his fenceline shooting. Dawson also says that his mirror (Cuban sentry post) threatened to open fire at him and that he actually retaliated and didn't illegally fire across the fence-line.

It is decided that Daniel Kaffee and Sam Weinberg (supervised by Galloway) need to travel to Cuba to meet Colonel Jessep to discuss Santago's murder and what exactly happened after the NIS caught wind of his letter.Before leaving for Cuba, Kaffee also meets with lead prosecutor and marine Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) who tells Kaffee that while the signs of Santiago's murder seem like a Code Red, the platoon Commander Lt Commander Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland) specifically ordered the platoon to not order Santiago a Code Red and on that basis, he offers to drop certain charges against the Marines and offers 12 years in prison if they plead not guilty. Jo-Anne In the meantime, JoAnne Galloway manages to speak with Private Louden Dawney's aunt, Aunt Ginny from Iowa (played by Maud Winchester) and gets a power of attorney to handle Downey's affairs, much to Kaffee's angst.

Upon arriving in Cuba, Kaffee, Galloway and Weinberg are greeted on the flight line by Corporal Barnes (Noah Wyle) and is escorted by jeep and then a boat off to RFC Windward and straight into Nathan Jessep's office.

After an initial tour of Santago's barracks by Lt. Kendrick, who believes that while a tragedy, Santiago deserved to die (after confirming he still did order the platoon to not touch Santiago), they have lunch together at the officer's mess and it is here that Jessep straight up lies about what happened to Santiago after they found out about his letter and the fence-line shooting (as advised to the NIS) and that it was organized that Santiago be transferred off the base on the first flight on September 6 which apparently left Guantanamo Bay at 6:00 AM. JoAnne Galloway then questions Jessep about the occurrences of Code Reds at Guantanamo Bay and that whether he received a directive from the Atlantic Fleet's Commanding Officer that Code Reds were not to be condoned under any circumstances. Jessep vehemently argues against Galloway after insulting her that while he discourages the use of Code Reds as per the commanding officer's directive, he still believes that they are an invaluable part of infantry training and that if they happen to occur without his knowledge then he has no problem with it as he believes that if there're sub-standard marines in his unit and especially at Guantanamo Bay, then he's risking the loss of American lives.

Towards the end of the meeting, Kaffee asks Jessep whether he can have a copy of the transfer order for Santiago but asks him in a rather casual fashion - Jessep tells Kaffee that he can have all the transfer orders he needs (implying that the transfer orders were doctored too) but only if Kaffee shows him some respect and 'courtesy' (the exchange of words possibly occurring because Jessep wanted to intimidate Kaffee).

At the end of the day and upon their return to Washington DC, JoAnne Galloway learns that Lt Colonel Markinson disappeared within 3 hours of their leaving and it is likely that he's disapeared as he doesn't wish to be subpoenaed to testify against Nathan Jessep out of shame and both believe that Lt Commander Kendrick ordered the Code Red to the marines.

Kaffee and Galloway then confront the marines Dawson and Downey and as.k whether Kendrick ordered them the Code Red and this time they both admit that they did, 5 mins after the initial meeting with the entire platoon. Kaffee and Galloway then tell the chief prosecutor Captain Jack Ross and advise him that there was an order by Kendrick to both marines that they execute the Code Red against Santiago and also advise him that Lt Colonel Markinson's gone AWOL - Captain Ross then tells Kaffee that if Markinson's disappeared, he's not likely to be found again as he was an expert in counter-intelligence and knows how to evade tails.

After hesitating for a bit especially after realizing that Dawson and Downey won't plead guilty in return for a 6 month discharge from the marine corps, he decides to fight their case anyway with a not-guilty plea.with the risk that if the court finds them guilty, they risk 12 years in prison, in line with the prosecutor's warning.



Lunch with Jessep

The Trial begins

After roughly 3 weeks of the arraignment, the trial against the two marines commences with Judge Julius Alexander Randolf presiding (played by J.A. Preston) on the bench and officers of the Navy (including two women who have not borne children) serving as members of the Jury.

Kaffee, Galloway and Weinberg, after thorough research of their case, prepare the marines for their parts as witnesses and organize the questioning for other witnesses.

The government's trial team, headed by prosecutor Captain Ross leads with calling the first witness, R.C. McGuire, the Naval Investigative Services officer who was sent to Guatanamo Bay to talk about Santiago's letter with Colonel Jessep and Lt Colonel Markinson. It is revealed that R.C. McGuire never really got to talk to William Santiago as by the time he reached there, Santiago had died.

The government then calls the on-site doctor at Guantanamo Bay, Dr. Stone, who says that he has no doubt that William Santiago had been poisoned due to acute lactic-acidosis, a phenomenon during which oxygen begins to burn sugar instead of blood which can cause lactic acid to form in the victim's lungs. The doctor also confirms that he gave William Santiago a clean bill of health and at no time were there any symptoms that he was suffering from a pre-existing coronary condition which could have exacerbated his condition which caused the formation of lactic acid when the marines attacked him (It was already revealed that the Doctor did not officially conclude the cause of Santiago's death as acute lactic-acidosis until at least 5 hours after his death, during which time he had met Colonel Jessep, indicating coercion, which cannot be proved). Daniel Kaffee continues to cross-examine the Doctor, saying that it is possible he purposely ignored certain warning signs which Santiago displayed, as written in his letter as possible acute symptoms he might suffer lactic acidosis but the Doctor willingly ignored them and gave Santiago a clean bill of health anyway, else he would be held directly accountable for his death. The defence attorneys (especially JoAnne Galloway), move to object against the Doctor's testimony as they believe that he's lying he wasn't aware of Santiago's death's real reason - however, the move to object is overruled by the Judge on grounds that the witness is an expert and the court will hear his opinion.

More witnesses, including the marines, Corporal Hammaker and Corporal Barns respectively testify that their platoon commander, Lt Jonathan Kendrick ordered them at 16:00 hrs on September 5th that they were to not touch William Santiago while Barnes testifies that while the men wanted to give Santiago a code-red, they were too afraid of Harold Dawson as he was against the idea for a long time - thereby giving the first ray of hope to prove the marine's innocence in light that he was merely following orders.

The defense team then calls upon the platoon commander, Lt Kendrick and subject him to an intense examination, where it is revealed that he actually gave Harold Dawson a below average rating during his last evaluation, after it was revealed that he was sneaking food to a marine by the name of Curtis Bell, who had been under punishment for a week (where he was barred proper food for 7 days) - further strengthening the defense's case that Dawson indeed was probably innocent.

As the case against the government swings towards Kaffee's favor, he's unexpectedly greeted by the missing Lt. Col Markinson, who tells Kaffee that Santiago was never going to be transferred off Guantanamo Bay and that him and Jessep doctored the transfer order and even lied about the flight on which Santiago was supposed to leave - there was actually a flight which left Guantanamo Bay at 11:00 PM the previous day and landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 2:00 AM which was supposed to take Santiago off the base, and that Jessep made that flight disappear off the logbooks. Kaffee asks Markinson to testify against Jessep and Kendrick and expose the truth, however Markinson commits suicide in full dress uniform as he'd rather die than face the shame of being a marine officer involved in such a scandalous cover-up which goes against the principles of the United States Navy.

The case suddenly becomes further complicated when the junior marine involved in the murder, Private Louden Downey, reveals to the government prosecutor that he never made it back to his barracks until around 17:00 on September 5th, implying he was actually never around Lt Kendricl, who gave Dawson and Downey the Code Red orders against Santiago, 5 mins after the general platoon meeting - implying he actually lied to the defense counsel. Downey then confesses that the Code Red actually came from his superior marine, Harold Dawson, who apparently received the order from Kendrick.

Realizing that he's probably going to lose the case, Kaffee gets into a drunken fit of rage after Galloway suggests he called Nathan Jessep to testify, saying that if he smears a high ranking officer of Jessep's position, he's in effect putting his naval career at risk and irreversible damage to his reputation - however, after calming down and speaking with Sam Weinberg, he decides to call Nathan Jessep to the stand.






Daniel Kaffee gets drunk after Markinson's death and Downey's false testimony

The Trial Concludes

As Colonel Jessep makes his way into the courtroom to testify, Kaffee wastes no time in beginning his examination, with the intent that he'll push Jessep to the point that he'll confess that he indeed did order the Code Red to Kendrick, who then ordered it to Harold Dawson.

Jessep initially turns out to be a tougher opponent than originally expected, as he tactfully dodges Kaffee's questions regarding why Santiago was transferred and also how is it that despite his day long trip to Washington DC, he was carrying a full set of clothes while Santiago, who was apparently leaving for the rest of his life, didn't pack a single item of clothing literally 4 hours before his scheduled departure out of Guantamo Bay. Kaffee also proves to Jessep using the phone records out of RFC Windward, that Santiago didn't make a single phone call to his friends or family the day he apparently learnt he was going to be transferred - suggesting that there probably was never going to be a transfer to begin with. Jessep still manages to patronize Kaffee by saying he can't speak with conviction about the travel habits of Santiago and that he should be excused if all the defense attorney has against him are a couple of phone records.

Soon after that, Sam Weinberg brings two airmen from the Andrews Air Force Base, with the intent they testify that a secret flight did indeed land over there at 2:00 AM on September 6th despite the tower chief's logbooks being doctored - Despite warnings from Galloway that smearing an officer like Jessep could have consquences, Kaffee moves in for the kill by confronting Jessep that if his orders are always followed like he says then why was it necessary to transfer Santiago off the base as if what he says is final, then the marines should not have touched Santiago at all. That on top of the possibility the airmen will acknowledge the red eye flight from Guantanamo Bay to Andrews, makes Jessep increasingly defensive and uncomfortable, eventually admitting that he did indeed order the Code Red against Santiago, to Lt Kendrick.

The court, stunned by what they've witnessed, is immediately adjourned and Nathan Jessep's arrested and taken into custody.


Jessep's Confession

Final Scenes

As the jury returns with a verdict, they clear Dawson and Downey of all charges including murder and conspiracy to commit a murder but however find both of them guilty of 'conduct unbecoming a marine'.

While Downey cannot understand what he did wrong, Harold Dawson says that they were wrong in that they did not stand up for someone weaker than them and that they did not stand up for William Santiago when he needed the support of his platoon.

As both Dawson and Downey are taken away for administrative processing, Kaffee tells Dawson that he doesn't need to wear a patch on his arm to have honour. Dawson responds by saying "Ten Hut! There's an Officer on deck" and salutes Kaffee, finally showing that he does indeed respect Kaffee as a Naval officer after his initial disapproval of him.



Dawson and Downey being sentenced

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    • L.M. Hosler profile image

      L.M. Hosler 3 years ago

      This was a good movie but there was a lot of the military talk that I didn't fully understand. Your hub explained a lot of those things.

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thanks for the feedback LM Hosler ..yes if you're unfamiliar with the millitary and their ranks its possible you might not understand certain terms .... neverthless this movie's as gripping and addictive even today as it was 21 yrs ago

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      I've watched this movie several times. Thank you for presenting the details. The Tom Cruise character is my favorite because of the part he played, but I am drawn to Jack Nicolson's acting--and speeches.

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Hey MsDora - Yes I think so too that Jack Nicholson brilliantly portrayed the antagonist and his dialogues were more memorable than Tom Cruise's.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I have watched this movie so many times, and each viewing I enjoy watching Cruis and Nicholson banter and argue over the issues. Nicholson plays his role well. Interesting cover on this movie!

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thanks for the comment teaches.. yes I've watched this movie a lot of times too and do believe that Nicholson's performance was actually more polished than Cruise's..

    • nuffsaidstan profile image

      nuffsaidstan 3 years ago

      A nice precis of this movie, Nicholson was awesome in this.

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Agreed nuffsaid ... Nicholson's performance is usually under-rated but I still feel he was the best among the 3

    • swilliams profile image

      Emunah La Paz 3 years ago from Arizona

      Great job! I loved this movie, One of my adopted lines is "You Can't Handle The Truth!" Of course no one takes me seriously anyway. But I like that line and the movie. Thanks for sharing! Voted up!

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thanks for the feedback Swilliams...and i think since you liked this review..you 'CAN' Handle the Truth!' lol

    • swilliams profile image

      Emunah La Paz 3 years ago from Arizona

      Ha! That was very funny!!!

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Interesting to read this review, as I originally saw this movie in - your neighbor - New Zealand (Christchurch) while we were on leave from the US Army. You covered this classic movie very well. Loved the movie clips.

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thanks for the feedback Kathleen ... it is one of my favorite movies so a good review was necessary :) ... btw hope you visited Australia while you were in NZ

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      We did! Were in Sidney for New Years - fireworks over the harbor bridge - and went to the aquarium, which is still the most impressive I've ever seen. Visited a rainforest and my family dove the Great Barrier Reef -I'm the only one who can't relax under water.

      I love the way Aaron Sorkin writes as you can see by a quick review of my hubs. Looking forward (with regret) to the third and final season of "The Newsroom." Do you get that in Australia? Seems like West Wing was the only series he could get passed the third season!.

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I'm an avid fan of the Newsroom..we have a channel here called Showcase (which is essentially HBO which you have up in the States and Asia).. right now I'm hooked on to Game of Thrones ..the final episode for season 4 is beaming this week :( ..

    • conradofontanilla profile image

      conradofontanilla 3 years ago from Philippines

      Hackslap,

      I have viewed the movie "A few good men" several times. i enjoy most the scene when Jack Nicholson was broken by his own pride.

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Ive watched A FewGood Men plenty of times too.. some films are just that addictive.. thanks for the feedback!

    • SubRon7 profile image

      James W. Nelson 2 years ago from eastern North Dakota

      Hey, Hackslap, great article! I voted for Lance Corporal Harold Dawson, and tried to vote for Kevin Bacon too...it would only let me vote for one, but OMG, that whole cast and the whole movie was outstanding. I've watched it at least a half dozen times--and now will have to watch again.

      By the way, my submarine, the USS Archerfish AGSS311, spent about 2 weeks Christmas (1966 or 67) at Sydney harbor. It was my best time in the navy. I also fell in love with a wonderful woman, and then had to leave her, but I've never forgotten her.

      I think, unfortunately, that kind of love can happen only once in a lifetime.

      Thank you sir,

      James W. Nelson aka SubRon7

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 2 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thank you for your kind feedback James Nelson... and as Tennyson wrote...its okay to have loved and lost...than to have never loved at all...

    • Tamara14 profile image

      Tamara Kajari 2 years ago from Zagreb, Croatia, Europe

      One of those movies I can watch over and over again. Thank you for this nice reminder.

    • Hackslap profile image
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      Harry 2 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      No probz Tamara! .Glad you liked the review ..I can watch A Few Good Men over n over again too!

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