is a military-themed courtroom drama in which young lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Cruise) defends two Marines accused of murder, who say they were acting under orders from Col. Nathan Jessup (Nicholson). The movie is mainly famous today for its
- Anachronic Order: Col. Jessup's meeting with his officers about Santiago is depicted after the start of the film.
- Armor-Piercing Question:
Kaffee: DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED?!
Col. Jessup: YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT I DID!
- Ate His Gun: Markinson's alternative to testifying against Jessup because he feels that the failed to act sooner and refuses to betray his commander.
- Awful Truth: "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!"
- All kidding aside, the line has a very well earned spot—#29—on AFI' s "100 Quotes" List.
- Ax-Crazy: Colonel Jessep. He doesn't flinch from the deaths of Santiago or Markinson and after his Villainous Breakdown lunges screaming at Kaffey.
- Backhanded Compliment:
Kendrick: I like all you Navy boys. Every time we have to go somewhere to fight, you give us a ride.
- Badass Boast:
Col. Jessup: "You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances. I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me, so don't think for one second that you can come down here, flash your badge, and make me nervous."
- Badass Bookworm: Danny Kaffee and Jack Ross both qualify
- Bittersweet Ending: The Marines get cleared of their charges of murder but not of "conduct unbecoming of a Marine" and are to be dishonorably discharged following the trial. On the other hand, the right man who ordered the attack has been arrested, Kaffee has become respected and learned to take his job seriously, and the Marines accept that they deserve their punishment. Oh, and Kaffee and Galloway don't get together, despite some hints of romantic interest when she showed up to his apartment to ask him on a date. They just leave.
- Black and Gray Morality: Jessup and Kendrick are certainly the villains here, issuing illegal orders and then denying involvement when things went awry. But Dawson and Downey both display practically no remorse over killing a fellow Marine (accident or not, they entered his cabin with intent to hurt and humiliate), sticking to their belief they did nothing wrong because they were following orders against a known screwup. In the end, they do receive just punishment (a dishonorable discharge) and Dawson realizes it's fair, even if Downey probably would have gone to his grave thinking he was in the right if Dawson didn't spell it out for him. Even Santiago, though put in a difficult situation, was willing to rat on a fellow marine, the one who wouldn't allow the others to harass him no less, for his own benefit, and may have been knowingly lying about the nature of Dawson's fence shooting in order to get transferred out. None of the three parties come out looking all that great.
- Bluffing the Murderer: Kaffee brings in a pair of Surprise Witnesses to help pressure Jessup at the end. They don't have any actual information.
- Brick Joke:
Lt. Weinberg: "Cmdr. Galloway, Lt. Kaffee is considered to be the best litigator in our office. He successfully plea bargained 44 cases in 9 months."
Kaffee: "One more and I get a set of steak knives."
Later on when it looks like the case is slipping away from them:
Galloway: "I'm sorry I cost you the steak knives."
- Also: "I got some oregano, I hear that helps."
- Brilliant but Lazy: Kaffee is a brilliant attorney with a fantastic mind and charisma. But he'd much rather practice getting his softball swing perfect.
- The Cameo: Christopher Guest, who'd starred in two of Reiner's previous films, plays a doctor on the stand.
- Church Militant / Gung Holier Than Thou: Kendrick is this in spades.
Kenridck: "I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant: the Marine Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I am aware of are my commanding officer, Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, and the Lord our God."
- Clear Their Name: What Kaffee must do for Dawson and Downey.
- Cliché Storm: Invoked; Kaffee has a throwaway conversation with the local newsstand vendor involving each of them trying to wryly out-cliché the other.
- Colonel Kilgore: Being a man who eats breakfast three hundred yards away from men who are trained to kill him, Colonel Jessup feels that he is fighting a war all the time to protect America and will not have his methods questioned, no matter how disgusting or illegal.
- Danger Takes A Back Seat: Lt Col Markinson (the highly creepy J.T. Walsh) does this to Kaffee.
- Deadpan Snarker: This is a Sorkin film so this is expected. Even in a cast full of snark, Kaffee reigns supreme.
- Dirty Coward: Jessup, who despite his claims of toughness, was willing to throw two Marines under a bus to protect himself.
- The End: Used straight, in a fairly rare example for a film made in the 1990's. Rob Reiner says on the DVD commentary that it felt right, with the story being a sort of old-fashioned morality play.
- Eureka Moment: Kaffee retrieves his baseball bat from his closet and has an epiphany.
Sam: He does think better with his bat.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: See Pet the Dog below.
- Face Death with Dignity: Markinson is in full dress uniform before shooting himself.
- Fatal Family Photo: Subverted. We see Sam taking a walk in the park with his baby daughter, and the whole business seemed shady. Then nothing happened.
- Faux Affably Evil: Jessup is polite and charming when he wants to be, which only makes his volatile personality and complete willingness to sacrifice people for his own gain more terrifying.
- Follow the Leader: JAG.
- Friendly Enemy: Prosecutor Jack Ross. He and Kaffee are friends outside the courtroom, and Ross even privately believes the two Marines shouldn't be jailed, but in his own words:
Ross: I represent the United States Government without passion or prejudice. And my client has a case.
- Contrasted by Kaffee's friend and co-counsel, Lt. Weinberg, who is personally disgusted by his clients' actions regardless of whether they were following orders or not.
- Heroic BSOD: Kaffee goes out and gets rip-roaring drunk after his star witness kills himself.
- He's Back: "I got my second wind."
- Heel Realization: Dawson realizes that they deserve dishonorable discharges for "conduct unbecoming of a Marine" at the end. He even takes the time to explain it to the amazingly slow-witted Downey.
Downey: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.
Dawson: Yeah, we did. We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willie.
- Hiding Behind Religion: Lieutenant Kendrick claims being Christian in his testimony, but simoultaneously exposes his absolute absence of compassion.
- Highly Conspicuous Uniform: Zig Zagged. Weinberg tells Kaffee to wear his white dress uniform when they go to Guantanamo Bay because of how hot it is in Cuba. When they arrive, Galloway is wearing a khaki work uniform. The Marine private that drives the trio from the airfield suggests that Kaffee and Weinberg put on a pair of camouflage jackets he keeps in his jeep, reasoning that, "if the Cubans see an officer wearing white, they might think it's something they want to take a shot at."
- Honor Before Reason: Why Dawson refuses the plea bargain. The proposed deal would have saved them from prison, but a dishonorable discharge essentially negates everything they'd done in the Corps.
- Hypocrite: For all of his talk about how Marines never disobey orders, Jessup thinks nothing of ignoring the orders of his own superiors because he thinks he knows better. For all of his talk about loyalty, he is more than willing to throw two of his men under the bus to save his own hide.
- It's All About Me: Jessup has this in spades. He has no remorse for ordering a weak marine killed and only becomes angry when his validity as a soldier is questioned or his orders disobeyed.
- I Won't Say I'm Guilty: Dawson's position on the Code Red—yes, he did it, but since his commander ordered him to do it, he won't allow himself to plead. Unusually for this trope, Dawson changes his mind at the end. Having been acquitted for the major crimes, he accepts a dishonorable discharge for "conduct unbecoming a Marine," admitting that he should have stood up for Santiago. This is is partially foreshadowed when he refuses to plea bargain:
"If a court decides that what we did was wrong, I'll accept whatever punishment they give..."
- Col Jessup. Aside from being the villain, he's also a colossal dick to his underlings.
- Also Kendrick. He's equally unpleasant to Kaffee and Galloway and becomes equally incensed when his authority is remotely questioned.
- Knight Templar: Colonel Jessup. He reiterates several times throughout the movie the phrase "We're in the business of saving lives," indicating that he truly believes he's doing the right thing. The view in his courtroom speech might be a reasonable statement of the unique role of the military in protecting a free society and the compromises that come with that. When that turned into ordering assaults on his own men and covering it up...
- Laser-Guided Karma: Jessup getting charged with Santiago's death after trying to pin it on Dawson and Downey.
- Lying to the Perp: See Bluffing the Murderer.
- Mildly Military:
- Kaffee is chronically tardy, doesn't want Dawson to call him "sir," and plays softball while his clients are sitting in jail. Galloway calls him on it several times, and the Marines can barely contain their disgust.
- Also, one marine salutes Kaffee near the end of the movie. Indoors. And without any headgear. This one is forgivable, however. Indoor salutes are done during ceremonies and certain other occasions.
- Really, the entire movie, at least to people who have actually served in the military (especially the Marines). Uniforms are sloppily maintained, Marines in the movie often keep their hands in their pockets (a major no-no in the real Marine Corps), and nobody maintains bearing or decorum anywhere.
- Miranda Rights: Ross recites these after Jessup confesses on the stand.
- Mistaken Age: Kaffee, to Aunt Ginny. Aunt Ginny, to Kaffee.
- Motive Rant: A classic. Many, many courtroom drama motive rants since then have been based on it.
- My Master, Right or Wrong: This is the Marine's code ("Semper Fidelis" - Always Faithful/Loyal) and is integral to the chain of command as highlighted in the film; you obey your superior officers no matter what or people die. Colonel Jessup hides behind this code as justification for his actions and uses it to command absolute obedience from all his men. It ultimately comes back to bite him when he can't explain the actions of Lance Corporal Dawson and PFC Downey who gave Private Santiago an illegal "Code Red" disciplinary punishment which killed him. On the one hand, he insists that he gave orders that Santiago was not to be harmed, and on the other hand, he was arranging for Santiago to be transferred to another base to prevent him from being harmednote : if his orders are always followed, why did he have to protect Santiago by transferring him to another base? It is this key point that Lieutenant Kaffee uses to put Jessup in a bind and force him to admit the truth via the Armor-Piercing Question.
- The Neidermeyer: Colonel Jessup and Lieutenant Kendrick. Neither show the honor and loyalty to their troops which they espouse and would sooner have one physically punished illegally and so dangerously that he dies from the encounter which they then cover up, rather than send him away on point of principle.
- Never My Fault: Many of the Marines suffer from this, believing that they are above reproach because of the nature of their work and their ultimately good intentions. Jessup is the worst for it. Even after admitting to being behind Santiago's death, he's still incensed at being held responsible for it, blaming Kaffee. Dawson and Downey have an extreme case of this as well, but grow out of it by the end.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: Jessup dabbles in this. Aside from refusing to transfer Santiago off base, he has the Tower Chief's logs doctored to conceal a flight.
- Oh, Crap: Played with: after Jessup confesses, the look on Kaffee's face is a mixture of righteous indignation and this. It takes him a moment to recover. Understandable, considering what he just pulled off.
- Patriotic Fervor: Jessup's justification for his actions.
- The Perry Mason Method: "You want answers?" "I want the truth!!"... and so forth.
- Pet the Dog: During questioning leading up to the only quote anyone seems to remember, Colonel Jessup answers questions about three phone calls. The first two calls are about the military. The third one turns out to be a call to his sister asking her if she wanted to have dinner. For all his flaws as a soldier, he seems to be a decent enough brother.
- Additionally, when the defence team are down in Cuba Jessup presents himself as an admirer of Kaffee's late father for his work defending civil rights. He's also Nice to the Waiter.
- The first example becomes a case of extreme Moral Myopia when you consider that his longtime comrade Markinson just killed himself, not to mention that he's scheming to pass the buck for his morally bankrupt actions onto his underlings.
- Plea Bargain: Fabulously averted.
"We joined the Marines because we wanted to live our lives by a certain code, and we found it in the Corps. Now you're asking us to sign a piece of paper that says we have no honor. You're asking us to say we're not Marines. If a court decides that what we did was wrong, then I'll accept whatever punishment they give. But I believe I was right sir, I believe I did my job, and I WILL NOT DISHONOR MYSELF, MY UNIT, OR THE CORPS SO I CAN GO HOME IN SIX MONTHS! [beat] Sir.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Col. Jessup's speech about superior officers is shockingly misogynist. Interestingly, Jessup was also wrong. Dr. Antonia Novello was the US Surgeon General when A Few Good Men was released. As the head of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, Surgeons General always hold the rank of vice admiral. Jessup would have been required by law to salute her.
- Punch Clock Villain: Ross is a minor version of this trope. He's opposing the heroes of the story because he is representing the US government and it's his job to do so. It's well-established that otherwise he's on very friendly terms with Kaffee. Their good-natured banter after the trial shows that, despite the often heated proceedings, there are no hard feelings on either side.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Markinson quietly objects to Colonel Jessup's hardline attitude and actions towards his men, but is too spineless to stand up to him or call him out when he causes the death of Private Santiago.
- Meanwhile, Judge Randolph is, well, a judge. What makes him this instead of a prop with dialog is:
Kaffee: What's that?
Jessup: I would appreciate it if he would address me as 'colonel' or 'sir'. I believe I've earned it.
Randolph: Defense counsel will address the witness as 'colonel' or 'sir'.
Jessup: I don't know what the hell kind of unit you're running here...
Randolph: And the witness will address this court as 'judge' or 'your honor'. *gives Jessup a look* I'm quite certain I've earned it. Take your seat, Colonel.
- Sanity Slippage: From the moment Jessup enters the courtroom onward all the little psychological cracks he works so hard to hide start unraveling, culminating in his frothing Motive Rant and subsequent Villainous Breakdown.
- Shout-Out: The title, to the Marines recruiting commercial whose tagline is "We're looking for a few good men".
- Signature Line: "You can't handle the truth!"
- Smug Snake: Jessup and Kendrick
- Sociopathic Soldier: Like Colonel Jessup, Lieutenant Kendrick is callous, cruel, and entirely without scruples.
- Spanner in the Works: Both Galloway and Dawson are this to Jessup's friends in the Pentagon's attempts to handle Santiago's death quietly. Galloway for insisting that Kaffee actually give his clients' due diligence for once instead of rushing straight to the plea bargin, Dawson for telling Kaffee to take his plea bargain and shove it.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: After Jessup was placed under arrest, Kaffee delivers this line:
Kaffee: "Don't call me son. I'm a lawyer, and an officer in the United States Navy, and you're under arrest, you son of a bitch."
- Strictly Professional Relationship: LT Kaffee and LCDR Galloway clearly seem attracted to each other, but focus more on solving the case at hand than pursuing a relationship. Once the trial ends, they both go their separate ways.
- That Was Objectionable: A borderline example. The prosecution puts on a doctor to give his opinion as to the cause of Willie Santiago's death. Lt. Cmdr. Galloway objects on the basis of his qualifications. When the judge overrules her, she "strenuously objects" and is again overruled.
Sam: "Strenuously object"? Is that how it works? "Objection!" "Overruled." "No no no, I strenuously object." "Oh, well if you strenuously object, then I should take some time to reconsider."
- Her "strenuous objection" prompts the judge to say "The witness is an expert, and the court will hear his opinion;" undermining her own point in front of the court members, which Sam calls her on.
- Take Five:
Capt. West: Commander Galloway, why don't you get yourself a cup of coffee?
Lt. Cmdr. Galloway: Thank you, sir, I'm fine.
Capt. West: Commander, I'd like you to leave the room so we can talk about you behind your back.
Lt. Cmdr. Galloway: Certainly, sir.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The original stage production had Kaffee respond to Jessep's Motive Rant as follows:
: You trashed the law! But hey, we understand, you’re permitted. You have a greater responsibility than we can possibly fathom. You provide us with a blanket of freedom. We live in a world that has walls and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns, and nothing is going to stand in your way of doing it. Not Willie Santiago, not Dawson and Downey, not Markinson, not 1,000 armies, not the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and not the Constitution of the United States
! That’s the truth isn’t it Colonel
? I can handle it.
- Thanks to the film's omission of the above response to Jessep's Motive Rant, many people miss the point of the film's most famous scene: Yes, Jessep thinks he’s justified in doing what he does—Except for the fact that he isn’t.
- Those Two Guys: Dawson and Downey.
- Token Romance: Thankfully averted. Originally a romance between Tom Cruise and Demi Moore's characters was planned (and stills from a love scene made it to the tabloid news), but was left on the cutting room floor. The subtext is still there though.
- Too Dumb to Live: Private Lowden Downey. Galloway states at one point he has no idea what's going on. And when the time comes to put him on the stand, his panic is palpable. And ultimately justified.
- Trailers Always Spoil: The Motive Rant that undoes Col. Jessup was the best-known moment of the movie before it came out, due to "You can't handle the truth!" being such a catchy line.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Averted, where the night before Jessup is put on the stand, the lawyers have an onscreen meeting about their plan to make him confess, and the next day it's executed perfectly. Roger Ebert cited this as a flaw in the film, saying it's no fun if nothing goes wrong after you've already heard what's going to happen.
- There is a tiny bit of a speed bump, in that before they go into court that day, Galloway takes Kaffee aside and tells him he should back off of Jessup if he feels like he's not going to crack, and then during the questioning, Jessup's being really intimidating, Kaffee momentarily loses his nerve, Weinberg gives him a little shake of the head, Jessup gets up and starts to leave... and then Kaffee pulls it together and takes us home.
- Besides, the look on Kaffee's face when Jessup confesses, and that speed bump, shows it wasn't executed perfectly, it just turned out how Kaffee hoped.
- Not to mention Kaffee didn't back off when Ross objected to the line of questioning and the judge had held Kaffee in contempt. It's kinda hard to hear over all the shouting going on at this point.
- Utopia Justifies the Means: To Colonel Jessup, the only safe America is one that allows him to do whatever he thinks is necessary to protect it, with nobody allowed to question his methods or judgement.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Sorkin based the story on a real case that his sister worked for the JAG corps, where a marine in Guantanamo was nearly killed in a hazing that a superior officer ordered.
- Villainous Breakdown: Jessup has his famous rant, but the real breakdown comes right after when the unflappable Colonel finds he is being charged with Santiago's death, and then lunges screaming at Kaffee, who doesn't even bat an eyelash.
Col. Jessup: I'M GOING TO RIP THE EYES OUT OF YOUR HEAD AND PISS INTO YOUR DEAD SKULL! YOU FUCKED WITH THE WRONG MARINE!
- Walk and Talk: It first appeared here by accident as Rob Reiner needed a way to move the first scene with Jack and Danny along. It has since become one of Aaron Sorkin's trademarks.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Kaffee's late father was of the overachieving variety.
- Wham Line: "He was never going to be transferred off that base" from Markinson changes everything for the defence, giving them a real weapon with which to fight back. In-Universe only, however, since the audience already knows Jessup had no intention of transferring Santiago.
- You Can Say That Again: Kaffee trades clichés with the guy at his newsstand, resulting in this exchange:
Luther: It ain't over till the fat lady sings.
Kaffee: You can say that again.
Luther: It ain't over till the fat lady sings.
Kaffee: (with him) —fat lady sings. I walked into that one.