A 1989 play made into a 1992 movie directed by Rob Reiner, written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men is a military-themed courtroom drama in which young lawyer Kaffee (Cruise) defends two Marines accused of murder, who say they were acting under orders from Col. Jessup (Nicholson). The movie is mainly famous today for its "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!" Motive Rant at the end.*
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."
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: The famous quote said on this page is often interpreted as simply just one line: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"
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, since Dawson at least realises that they DID act dishonourably so their punishment is really only fair. 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. 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 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.
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."
"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."
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.
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.
Miranda Rights: Ross recites these after Jessup confesses on the stand.
Motive Rant: A classic. Many, many courtroom drama motive rants since then have been based on it.
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.
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.
"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 it's his job to do so and it's well-established that otherwise, he's on very friendly terms with Kaffee.
Spanner in the Works: Both Galloway and Dawson are this to Jessup's freinds in the Pentagon's attempts to handle Santiago's death quietly. Galloway for actually insisting that Kaffee actualy give his clients' due dilligence for once instead of rushing straight to the plea bargin, Dawson for telling Kaffee to take his plea bargin and shove it.
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."
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.
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 her panic is palpable. And ultimately justified.
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, Galloway 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.
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.
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.
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 know Jessup had no intention of transferring Santiago.