Nominated for both an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award ("Oscar") and a Hollywood Foreign Press Association (“Golden Globe”) award, the drama is compelling. The movie began as a Broadway play. Live theater is continuous rehearsal for the writer and director no less than for the cast. So, it came to the screen fully formed. But it does not stand up to repeated viewing. As a legal battle engaged in a courtroom, the intensity is irresistible. Contradicting that is the “naturalist” assumption that victory is impossible, that a draw is the best you can hope for.
Most of the $33 million in production costs went for salaries. Tom Cruise got $12.5 million. Jack Nicholson was paid $5 million. Demi Moore accepted only $2 million for the chance to take on a “genderless” role. (One production insider wanted to know why if she is not going to sleep with the lead is the character a woman? Aaron Sorkin called that his worst experience as a screenwriter. That and more on Mental Floss here.) But any competent screen actors could have had the roles. In fact, Rob Lowe played the lead for a year on Broadway. Regardless of who played the parts, they would still have had to act like Sailors and Marines. Most of them failed at that and the fault lies with the director and producer, Rob Reiner.
Writer Aaron Sorkin and director Rob Reiner have no military experience and they apparently had no military support. So, the production projected an embarrassing lack of military bearing. Lacking US DoD support, Reiner apparently did not hire a military advisor. (Michael McClosky is credited as “Major Michael McClosky” but I found no corroboration for his military rank.) The most glaring evidence is in Demi Moore’s portrayal of LCDR JoAnne Galloway. We might accept LTJG Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) whose hands are always his pockets in order to signal us that he is the cocky underachiever whose long string of successes came from plea bargaining. But there is no way that an investigator from the inspector general’ s office who is two grades above him would put up with that. Here is a rhetorical question: What do you do when you have your hands in your pockets? Answer: You better be taking something out of your pockets. It is completely unacceptable that LTJG Kaffee is eating an apple as he enters LCDR Galloway’s office. He might try it, but an IG investigator outranking him would give him a corrective interview immediately. Also unacceptable is her introducing herself as “JoAnne…, uh, Jo…” On target is the reply from 1LT (MC) Jonathan Kendrick: “May I call you Jonathan?” “No, you may not. You may call me Lieutenant Kendrick because when we have to go somewhere to fight, you Navy boys always provide a nice ride.” That is a stock response, a cliché, and a fact of life. On the other hand, it was for the audience’s benefit that COL Jessep reprimands his executive officer, LTC Matthew Markinson. “Don’t ever contradict me in front of another officer,” is the kind of warning that (a) never would have needed to be said or (b) at worst, was settled between them three years ago.
Within the naturalist school of aesthetics, the universe is indifferent to human action. Technically, that is correct; and it is that which allows success. The universe is not hostile. However, aesthetic naturalism is disingenuous. The inherent indifference of the universe actually means that each victory must be balanced by an equal or greater loss: you can never win. It is not just that there is a cost. Of course, everything costs. But to naturalism the final costs always outweigh the temporary benefits. Therefore, in this story, the accused Marines are found not guilty of murder, but are dishonorably discharged. The slower of the two (LCP Harold Dawson) still does not understand the verdict as they are led away. In the final moment, as recompense, LTJG Kaffee tells PFC Downey that he does not need an armband (his chevrons) to have honor. In return, the Private calls himself to attention and salutes the officer—which he refused to do earlier when he felt that the Lieutenant was not honorable enough to defend him. But for the Private, the dishonorable discharge is the worst possible outcome at the moment. He and the Lance Corporal were willing to suffer life in prison rather than to betray the officers who ordered them to haze (and thereby accidentally kill) their barracks mate. They were willing to accept all of the consequence of following orders. The betrayals by those officers who gave the orders and sought to cover up the murder and their roles in it is not deeply explored but only held up to view for a moment. LTC Markinson’s suicide, hallmarked by a letter to the parents of the victim, would have been a better focal point for the drama. In the universe of aesthetic naturalism, no person or act is more important than another. Naturalism denies the heroic by trivializing it, and at the same time giving focus to the unimportant.
According to the media histories Aaron Sorkin based his screenplay on a real event at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. Sorkin’s sister was in the JAG Corps, and she told him the story. After the play became a movie, four lawyers claimed that they were the models for the character of LTJG Daniel Kaffee. (See “Four Lawyers Claimed …” New York Times, here.) See also the true story of the accused and exonerated Marine that came to light when his body was found in a riverbed (“Ex-Marine who felt 'A Few Good Men' maligned him is mysteriously murdered,” by Bill Glauber, Sun Staff Writer, Baltimore Sun, April 10, 1994, here).
Naturalism is supposedly an unvarnished, journalistic recounting. Fiction is a convenient medium for telling the truth. But that is not what happens. The truth is always complicated, and how you simplify it depends on who you are. The Romantic theory is that people come into conflict when their chosen values are opposed. Even the bad guys are purposeful. But evil is powerless. Therefore, the good guys win, even when (as always) victory is purchased at a cost. In the universe of Romantic fiction, that cost brings a value worth the price. In the universe of Naturalism, even if there are "a few good men" it is not clear who they are.
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