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Boys to Men: A Look Back at ‘A Few Good Men’

Rob Reiner directed this star-studded film based on Aaron Sorkin’s hit Broadway show (adapted by Sorkin himself) back in 1992. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story of A Few Good Men, it surrounds two Marines on trial for killing a fellow Marine in their barracks in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Their defense was they were only following orders, orders their superiors claim they never gave. What follows is far more than a “he said/he said” but a topical tale putting the notions of loyalty, code, and honor on vivid and sometimes ugly display. A Few Good Men is a military courtroom drama second only to Herman Wouk’s famous The Caine Mutiny, later adapted into the fantastic 1954 film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart as the insane Lieutenant Commander Queeg. Here, Jack Nicholson takes over the Queeg part as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup who has an equally epic witness stand breakdown. Despite some obvious similarities between both plays/films, A Few Good Men more than stands on its own as not only a good film but an important Morality Play for modern times.

But what struck me watching this film over again recently wasn’t the moral question so much as it is arguably the first time that Tom Cruise, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland play adults.

In the ten years prior to A Few Good Men Tom Cruise became a superstar nearly out of the gate with hit after hit. His role as high schooler Joel in Risky Business followed by his cocksure fighter pilot in what would eventually become a blockbuster franchise in Top Gun has rarely, if ever, been matched. Cruise’s follow-up ‘80’s roles in films like The Color of Money (where he’s literally called “kid” most of the film), Cocktail, and Born on the Fourth of July were all him, for the most part, playing his own age, young. One could argue Rain Man and his subsequent back-to-back Nicole Kidman films, Far and Away and Days of Thunder, took him into adult territory, but for the most part he was still playing a “kid” out of his depth who still finds a way to get on top. Arguably that is also true of his role as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men. Kaffee is a cocky defense attorney for the JAG core who is well known for getting favorable plea bargains for his guilty clients. When he’s assigned the troublesome Santiago murder case, he is still very much a kid. ;Like in many other Cruise roles Kaffee is out of his depth. But the difference this time is before the end of the film Kaffee (with Cruise’s help) goes from boy to man. Cruise plays Kaffee at first with his usual casual indifference to the dangers and pitfalls around him, much the same way Ryan Reynolds plays Deadpool. The strength of the writing, the cast around him, and Cruise himself force Kaffee to, for lack of a better term, grow up. Cruise does a masterful job as Kaffee by fighting the urge to adult throughout the film. Reiner shoots Cruise well, showing us what most of us paid to see – the beautiful glint of his beautiful eye; but he also shows us something we rarely saw in Cruise’s eyes before – doubt, failure, and even fear. Kaffee is the first time we see Tom Cruise as a real adult lead despite his character realizing it.

Ten years before A Few Good Men found Kevin Bacon in a breakout role in Barry Levison’s brilliant Diner. This was a huge feat especially as two years before Bacon was being impaled by an arrow in Friday the 13th. Bacon’s rising star eventually got him the lead in Footloose making him a bona fide movie star. Most of Bacon’s subsequent roles after Footloose, including Quicksilver, White Water Summer, She’s Having a Baby, The Big Picture, He Said/She Said, Tremors, and Flatliners, were all essentially “man children.” Even his dark turns as serial killer Martin Thiel in Criminal Law and his gay prostitute character in Oliver Stone’s JFK had him portraying overgrown man children. It wasn’t until his smooth turn as Captain Jack Ross, the tough but fair prosecutor opposite Cruise’s Kaffee, did we get to see Bacon all grown up. Bacon plays Ross with a quiet, even compassionate, cool while delivering exposition in a concise and authoritative manor. Bacon has probably the least flashy role and still somehow manages to maintain equal status among so many huge names around him. Bacon as an actor has always been somewhat underrated in my opinion and his work as Capt. Jack Ross deserves more credit.

Kiefer Sutherland ten years prior to A Few Good Men wasn’t yet in the film industry. His first credited film, Max Dugan Returns, was a Neil Simon comedy starring his father Donald Sutherland and Jason Robards in 1983. His breakout role came later in 1986 as the cruel teenage delinquent Ace in a film also directed by Rob Reiner, Stand by Me. Right after that, Sutherland played the cool vampire David in Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys solidifying his prowess as a great bad guy. In subsequent films like the vastly underrated Promised Land, Young Guns series, 1969, and the aforementioned Flatliners with Kevin Bacon, Sutherland often played young men not ready for the enormity of the situation. Sutherland’s ability to grow fantastic thick facial hair often made him seem older than he actually was, but even in films like Renegades and Article 99 he was still just a kid. But as 2nd Lieutenant Johnathan Kendrick in A Few Good Men, Sutherland got to not only play another juicy bad guy role, but his first as an adult. Although Sutherland’s Kendrick is nearly always the youngest in the room, opposite Jack Nicholson and the late great J.T. Walsh, he still manages to come off as authoritative without question. Kendrick is a classic movie villain and Reiner needed the right casting to pull it off. Sutherland is opposite nearly every big actor in the world in this part and no one ever questions his resolve.

Watching Cruise, Bacon, and Sutherland “adult” in this film is also especially satisfying considering the supporting cast is chock full of actors who were about to breakout the way they all did in years prior. Noah Wyle was only two years away from becoming a household name as Carter on the hit NBC series ER when he played Corporal Barnes, a witness in the trial. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Corporal Hammaker in A Few Good Men was only four years from his Oscar-winning turn opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. Joshua Malina, who made is acting debut in the Broadway production of A Few Good Men and future West Wing stalwart, also has a cameo as Colonel Jessup’s aide Tom.

Wyle, Gooding, and Malina.

A Few Good Men is a great film that isn’t usually remembered for being the first film Cruise, Bacon, and Sutherland star in as adults. Nor is it remembered for Christopher Guest’s amazing turn as the base doctor clearly lying to protect Colonel Jessup’s story. Guest, a frequent Reiner collaborator, is simply amazing in this single scene. It is usually remembered as a great courtroom drama that you can watch with pretty much every member of your family. It’s full of quotable lines that are on t-shirts and mugs and walks the line between preachy and the real world.

Sorkin does lay out a real-life question of “How would I judge these men?” While it is proven the two hapless Marines were ordered to pull a “Code Red” on poor Willy Santiago, they certainly weren’t ordered to kill him despite how bad a bad guy Sutherland’s Kendrick was. In rewatching, it still seemed like textbook manslaughter to me. So much so in fact, when the offer of “two years, out in six months” came up I literally screamed at the TV, “TAKE IT!” But then again with Cruise, Bacon, and Sutherland I guess I needed to trust the adults in the room.

 

Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright, and television writer living in Los Angeles.
He is the author is the Sci-Fi JFK conspiracy novel
Shoot the Moon.

 

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