A FEW GOOD MEN (1992) **
Jack Nicholson, as Colonel Nathan Jessep who commands the Marines stationed at the Guantanamo Bay base, in Cuba, is the heavy in this military courtroom drama. He is also the one presence with real weight, even though he has only three big scenes plus a tiny one. Put together they are merely a small fraction of the overlong movie. Yet every time Nicholson appears, everything and everyone jump to life. In-between "A Few Good Men" ranges around 25 milligrams on the Halcion Scale, a rather low but still soporific dosage.
The movie is based on a successful play, itself based on fact : An under-par Marine keeps writing letters to the authorities, pleading to be relocated and promising in exchange to spill the beans on an infraction in Guantanamo. Since to be an informer is a no-no in the Corps, this grunt gets the outlawed Code Red treatment, a form of severe hazing and internal settling of accounts. As director Bob Reiner might say, it is All in the Family.
The hazee accidentally dies. The hazers are tried for murder and other things unbecoming the heroes of the Halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli.
In Washington, Lt. Cdr. Joanne Galloway, a military legal eagle, smells a rat, suspects that perhaps the two boys are fall guys, low on the pole of military over-zealousness. She is played by a serious and eager Demi Moore who looks trim, neat, not glamorous but, as "Vogue" might put it, "soignee."
Ordered to work with hot-shot Navy lawyer Lt. (j.g.) Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), Galloway finds that he is a smart-ass, smart-alecky wisenheimer with an improbably long record of plea-bargains that save him precious time that he can devote to his passion for softball.
Cruise (overdrawn as insufferably cute), is only temporarily in the armed forces, and keeps making a point of his indifference to, and ignorance of military matters. His jokes wear thin, as in "Zero-600 hours. That's morning?" or "1600 hours, that's 4 o'clock."
Questions arise: Will Lt. Galloway feel initial antagonism toward lazybones Lt. Kaffee? Will Kaffee eventually get seriously committed to the case? Will he show his genius? Will the man and the woman eventually get closer? Will they fall in love?
Answers: You bet, you bet, you bet, you bet, and don't you bet on it. The last cliche is mercifully skirted here, though gradually replaced by a mutual admiration society.
The movie alternates between Guantanamo and (mostly) the States. Kaffee's sleuthing aims at proving that the Code Red procedure resulted from orders in a chain of command that reaches the highest level. This comes as no surprise, as it is telegraphed along with other character and plot developments, some none too credible. Predictable too is the finale's theatrical crumbling of the strong key witness. As for Cruise, he will, of course, mutate from indifferent, dishwater Kaffee to committed, strong espresso.
The picture is not unpleasant but it is not terribly original or informative. It opens up the original play and has good cinematography, save for the cliche of shooting from a low point of view a bigger-than-life Nicholson striding into the courtroom. The sets are fine. Military places, offices, the courtroom and Cruise's apartment look appropriately lived in, functional rather than figments of Beverly Hills imagination.
The initial sequence, a spectacularly micrometric drill, is nicely symbolic of things to come: discipline and uniformity. Like many such "numbers," there's a kinship here between the toy-boys, half-time football shows or Busby Berkeley's massively choreographed routines. The important point of how much such precision contributes to the making of good soldiers -- from good guys like the Marines or bad guys like the Nazi Wermacht-- is left untouched by the movie.
Again, the exception to those unmemorable deliveries is the scenery-chewing, ever-Mephistophelean Nicholson, who looks as if he could eat the entire cast for breakfast, and whose effective histrionics hide the fact that he is a uni-dimensional persona.
The other roles are even less developed. From Demi Moore on down, everyone is a demi-character. The film is not in the same league as the best military-trial movies such as "The Caine Mutiny" or "Paths of Glory', or civilian courtroom dramas like "The Paradine Case," "Witness for the Prosecution," "The Winslow Boy," "Inherit the Wind" or "To Kill a Mockingbird."
To what extent Nicholson's Col. Jessep is typical is not made clear. He is shown as a relic, a professional Cold War and Vietnam veteran imbued with a semi-perverted sense of duty. His refrain is that the purpose of the military is "to save lives." Ipso facto this confers on the people in uniform a noble separateness from all others. From this standard, too, emerges the notion that the end justifies the means.
Derisively, Col. Jessep addresses Lt. Kaffee as "son," which underlines the gap between the young, modern, yuppie-ish, temporary soldier and the old-timer's pride, along with his dictatorial ways and sexism. But the movie keeps straddling the fence and does not really investigate substantial aspects of what is called " the military necessity."
I wonder if in reality those involved in the original incident made up as ethnic a balance as in the film. The accused are respectively a black corporal and a white Pfc. -- a rather dim-witted country-boy. The judge is black. Cruise's partners are a white woman and a Jewish male. Could this be today's politically correct equivalent of the motley soldiers in the foxholes of World War II pictures?
I wonder too if Guantanamo is as dangerous an outpost as Col. Jessep makes it out to be. The oddity of this enclave might have been worked into the story, but it gets no comments or explanations.