Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
You knew I’d get to A Few Good Men eventually, didn’t you? Yes, it’s best remembered for Jack Nicholson’s famous line, but this movie has much else to recommend it.
The film revolves around the court martial of two Marines, Dawson and Downey, for allegedly murdering Santiago, a fellow Marine. Santiago was an ineffective soldier and during the investigation, Lt. Commander Galloway (Demi Moore) begins to suspect that Santiago was the victim of a “Code Red,” an unofficial punishment either directly or tacitly ordered by Santiago’s commanding officer, Colonel Jessup (Nicholson).
Although Galloway wants to represent Dawson and Downey, their defense is instead assigned to Lt. Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. Kaffee is hardly a paragon of lawyerly behavior: he’s lazy, hedonistic, doesn’t take his job seriously, and prefers plea bargains to trials. In his representation of Dawson and Downey, he initially cuts a deal with the prosecutor, Captain Ross (Kevin Bacon), but his clients turn it down, forcing Kaffee to take the case forward to trial.
Through numerous twists and turns, Kaffee eventually discovers the truth—although that isn’t the truth Colonel Jessup is talking about in his outburst on the witness stand, the line that everyone remembers from this movie: “You can’t handle the truth!” (That line is Number 29 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes.)
Having never been a JAG officer, I can’t comment on how accurately the court martial scenes reflect the military justice system; accurate or not, they are certainly dramatic and well acted. There is one excellent example of how real lawyers should conduct themselves: Captain Ross’s opening statement is succinct, premised on statements of fact, devoid of emotion but not of passion and drama, and offers a clear view of what his case is about. I’ve showed it to my students at DU Law School, who think that an opening statement has to be long, flowery, and argumentative to be effective. Perhaps I should show it to some of the lawyers who appear in my courtroom, too.
This movie was nominated for Best Picture and Nicholson for Best Supporting Actor (although how anyone could see Nicholson as having a “supporting” role is beyond me). The movie was directed by Rob Reiner, famous as “Meathead” Michael Stivic, Archie Bunker’s son-in-law. Reiner also directed one of my favorite non-law movies, The Princess Bride. There are a number of recognizable faces in the cast, including Kiefer Sutherland, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Kevin Pollack.
If you’ve never seen A Few Good Men, cue it up. See if you can handle the truth!
Myles H. Malman, an esteemed trial attorney and NITA faculty member, passed away in the early morning hours of Monday, April 21 after a 10-month battle with brain cancer. He battled cancer with the same resolve, determination and contagious sense of humor as he prosecuted his cases. Always generous with his time and skills, Myles taught advocacy skills to other attorneys serving as faculty at NITA’s Northeast and Florida Building Trial Skills programs. He lectured extensively on topics involving criminal law. As Dan Toomey, NITA’s DC Advanced Advocates program director put it, “He was emblematic of the terrific teachers that NITA has assembled over the years. To those who taught with Myles, I am sure this is a great loss.”