Few Good Men, A (1992): Bob Reiner’s Oscar-Nominated Courtroom Drama, Starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise

Bob Reiner’s courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, is an accomplished production that’s narratively flawed (thematically, the movie is much ado about nothing), but technically it exemplifies the best qualities of mainstream cinema.

Rob Reiner, who has displayed his talent in such diverse films as the coming-of age youth movie Stand By Me, the psychological thriller Misery, the romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally, scores once more with a perfectly watchable and enjoyable film that has a void at its center.

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, based on his critically acclaimed Broadway play, concerns the unrelenting quest to uncover the truth during a military trial. Two young Marines stand accused of murdering a member of their platoon during an unsanctioned discipline action known as “Code Red.” The Navy, in an effort to obtain a quick and quiet plea bargain, appoints Lieutenant J.G. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a young second generation Navy lawyer, to defend the accused Marines.

The courtroom drama, which bears some similarity to The Caine Mutiny, presented a challenge to Reiner, because he has never done anything like this before. “I saw it just to see if it was something I might want to direct, and I fell in love with the play,” Reiner recalls. “It was so emotional and powerful that I was just knocked out by it. He committed himself to direct the play and within three weeks, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore were all signed to star in the film.

Reiner was fascinated with the stage play for two reasons. First, the theme of a moral dilemma in a military setting; the second was the personal struggle of Kaffee, struggling to emerge from under the shadow of his famous father and find himself. Reiner was able to relate ato this struggle on a personal level.
Reiner says he has one criterion in choosing a project: “What’s in this film that I can relate to and that personally appeals to me. Misery was a suspense movie, but Reiner liked the artist’s struggle to break out of a mold, something he could relate to. In his new movie, “what appeals to me is Kaffee’s struggle to find himself.

Only a year out of Harvard Law School, Kaffee has earned a reputation for his glibness and facility to plea bargain. Though possessed of a brilliant legal mind, Kaffee is more interested in softball games than in the hardball game of law. At first the case appears routing: On the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, two Marines conduct a seemingly unauthorized punishment on a fellow Marine who has broken the chain of command by writing letters to an off-base authority, threatening to report one of them for an illegal shooting over the fenceline, in exchange for a transfer.

Kaffee’s defense team includes Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore), who immediately questions Kaffee’s sense of commitment. Galloway, propelled by the courageous spirit that Kaffee lacks, refuses to allow him to choose the easy way out, pushing him deeper and deeper into the intricacies of the case. Kaffee soon realizes he must take the case to court, defying official expectations that he avoid an embarrassing trial.

A Few Good Men is the story of Daniel Kaffee, a young man, who in the course of the story discovers his own sense of value and responsibility as a lawyer and as an officer of the United States Navy. When first introduced to Kaffee, he is a man perfectly content to go through life not caring about much all.

Reiner says: Everything is a joke to Kaffee and he doesn’t take anything seriously. He’s dodging having to face himself because if he puts himself out there then he knows he’s going to be held up to comparison with his father who was very famous and respected Navy lawyer. Then this murder case is dumped into his lap. Reiner concentrated his efforts on developing the struggle that Kaffee goes through to establish himself as separate and apart from his father–an idea that was only hinted at in the play. Indeed, what grabbed Reiner above all was the emotional power of the stage play, reflected in Kaffee’s struggle to establish identity outside the shadows of his father.

Reiner related to this problem most personally–I had a famous and successful father; he won 11 Emmy Awards, and he was also a terrific guy. The fact that he was successful and nice was a double challenge for me–I had to find my own niche. Reiner believes that with the l986 film, Stand By Me he came into his own–a more dramatic and more sensitive work than This Is Spinal Tap. But I was successful along parallel lines of my father and I was very aware of it.
Kaffee’s father was a great tactician but probably also more practical than Kaffee. K will take more chancves but he’s never taken any until this point in his life. He’s reached a crossroads and he is either going to forge ahead and carve out his own niche or just retreat into the background and hide the rest of his life.”

Reiner feels that every person is subject to the influence of their parents and has difficulty making a separation from them and standing on their own two feet. However, he feels that it is even more difficult for somebody who’s had a famous mother or father.

He grapples with his own personal lack of conviction, stemming from a life spent in the shadow of a highly respected and successful father, which has kept him emotionally distant and devoid of purpose. Kaffee becomes determined to unravel the mystery and bring those responsible for the young Marine’s death to justice, risking his professional career and challenging his own deepest fears.
Reiner also felt that the climactic courtroom confrontation needed to be altered. “I felt it was important that Kaffee not go into the courtroom armed with a smoking gun as he did in the play,” says Reiner. “Instead I felt it would be more impressive and satisfying if Kaffee was in there flying by the seat of his pants, using all of his intelligence to take on this big case, not sure whether or not he would win. I saw it as David taking on Goliath.”

The film raises the issue of where do you draw the line between being a good soldier and a conscientious human being? The word Nazi is mentioned in the play and Reiner thinks the film makes direct allusions to the Nazi regime and the Nuremberg trials.

In casting the film, Reiner got a top-notch ensemble, headed by Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore, three of the most popular actors in the American cinema today.

I had trepidations of working with so many big stars, I was concerned with problems of inflated egos. But I learned that people are people, I found that they just want to do a good job. They have become stars because they are good; they have strong, charismatic screen presence.

Colonel Jessep is played Jack Nicholson, arguably the most accomplished actor of his generation, having won two Academy Awards (for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment). Nicholson has received so far nine Academy nominations, for landmark performances in such diverse movies as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Last Detail, Reds, and Prizzi’s Honor. He was one of the most impressive of the record-breaking Batman in 1989.

The appearance of Nicholson and Cruise in the same movie is a casting coup that at once highlights the generational conflict in the movie and the contribution of each actor to his generation.