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Film / A Few Good Men

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Jessep: You want answers?!
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can't handle the truth!note 

Did you Describe A Few Good Men Here?


A Few Good Men is a 1989 play written by Aaron Sorkin, which was later made into a 1992 film directed by Rob Reiner and starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore. It is a military-themed courtroom drama in which young navy lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Cruise) defends Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Louden Downey (James Marshall), two Marines accused of murdering fellow Marine William Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo) at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. The accused, however, say they were acting under orders from Col. Nathan Jessep (Nicholson).

The film also stars Kevin Bacon as Jack Ross, Kevin Pollak as Sam Weinberg, J. T. Walsh as Matthew Markinson and Kiefer Sutherland as Jonathan James Kendrick.

You Can't Handle The Parody is based on Jessep's rant at the end of the film.

In 2018 NBC announced they would produce a live broadcast of the play, following the success of their live musical productions, which was set to air some time in 2019. However, as of early 2022, it has yet to be produced.

You want examples?! You can't handle the tropes!

  • Actually Pretty Funny: When Kaffee turns Ross's own cross-examination of one of the Marines against him - Ross points out "Code Reds" aren't in either the Marine handbook or the handbook about operating on Gitmo, and Kaffee shows that mess halls aren't in the latter either, which doesn't mean Gitmo doesn't have one - Ross is seen smiling and chuckling. He also chuckles at the end when Kaffee reveals the two airmen whom Kaffee brought in to testify that Jessep forged the log books actually had no information whatsoever.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's never made explicitly clear whether Dawson's fence-line shooting was illegal or not. Dawson tells Kaffee that a Cuban soldier engaged and he was simply returning fire. Santiago claims in his letter that it was illegal, though he may have been lying about it just so he could get a transfer. Dawson is never charged with anything because, as the NIS agent says during the trial, the only evidence that could support the shooting being illegal would be testimony from Santiago and his death prevented the agent from questioning him.
  • Anachronic Order: The film opens with Dawson and Downey ambushing Santiago in his quarters and assaulting him. Col. Jessep's meeting with his officers about Santiago, which leads to the assault (or Code Red) is shown later.
  • Arc Words:
    • Colonel Jessep has a preference for saying "we're in the business of saving lives" to justify the bullying way he manages his base.
    • "Code Red", the unwritten, unofficial (and quite illegal) order to punish (read: haze) any Marines Jessep considers incompetent.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    • At the end of Jessep giving a Motive Rant, Kaffee asks a question that turns the case completely on its head.
      Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?!
      Col. Jessep: You're goddamn right I did!
    • The real question that shatters Col. Jessep is the one before this exchange. Jessep had kept his cool, arrogantly stating that his orders have always been followed and that he did not order the Code Red. Kaffee seizes on the Logic Bomb: if Jessep gave an order that Santiago wasn't to be touched, and his orders are always followed as he so claims, then why would Santiago be in danger, and why would it be necessary to transfer him off the base?
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Weinberg, after Galloway asks him why he has so much obvious contempt for Dawson and Downey:
    Weinberg: They beat up on a weakling; that's all they did. The rest is just smoke-filled, coffee-house crap. They tortured and tormented a weaker kid. They didn't like him. So, they killed him. And why? Because he couldn't run very fast.
  • Artistic License – Law: Quite a lot of this, as enumerated by a real lawyer here, and again here with a retired Marine Corps Judge Advocate officer.
    • When Ross offered a plea to involuntary manslaughter, Jo rejected it. Attorneys are not allowed to do this. Attorneys have an obligation to convey offers to their clients and only the client can accept or reject them. In fact, both Kaffee and Ross would have been obligated to report her for breaking this rule.
    • Jessep wouldn't be allowed to say "This is ridiculous, check the tower logs for Christ's sake!" That would be opining, and Kaffee would be entitled to object and have it struck from the record.
    • Kaffee wouldn't be allowed to question Jessep in such detail about what Kendrick did with regard to his orders, or what he thought of them, without first establishing exactly how Jessep knew with such certainty what Kendrick did or thought. As it's presented, it's speculation and would be disallowed.
    • Jessep's question "You ever serve in an infantry unit, son?" would be disallowed. Witnesses aren't normally allowed to ask questions of the attorney when they're on the stand. Kaffee could ask the judge to order Jessep to answer the question, but in this case, it's arguably justified that he doesn't because he's leading Jessep into a trap.
    • Kaffee wouldn't be allowed to interrupt Jessep when they're going back and forth about what Jessep said; neither is Jessep allowed to interrupt him. It would result in a muddy and unclear trial record.
    • Kaffee's question "Santiago shouldn't have been in any danger at all, should he, colonel?" is far from the only argumentative question that Kaffee asks Jessep (an argumentative question presumes its own answer, in this case, that Santiago was in danger.)
    • Kaffee wouldn't be allowed to start shouting at Jessep.
    • Not only does Judge Randolph commenting on Kendrick's "impeccable" service record have absolutely nothing to do with the proceedings at hand, but doing so is actually "Commenting on the Evidence", which is against the law. Such a comment would be grounds for Kaffee to object to Randolph continuing to oversee the case on the grounds that he's proven a bias against the defendants.
    • Most of the objections from both Jo and Ross are complete nonsense. Even with all of the objections being overruled by the judge, the lawyers shouldn't be making them in the first place:
      • Ross objects to one of Kaffee's questions about Markinson by saying he wants to know what Kaffee's implying. In essence, he's demanding that Kaffee give him his trial strategy just because he asked a question, which would defeat the entire purpose of a trial strategy.
      • Later on, during Jessep's cross-examination, Ross objects that Kaffee is only trying to smear Jessep's name and asks that he be excused entirely. The problem with this objection is three-fold. First, this type of speaking objection isn't a valid objection and is given with no real basis. Second, such an objection implicitly confirms that the alleged strategy is working and that Kaffee's questions are making his witness look bad, essentially saying that the questioning should be stopped because Ross's witness is flunking. Third, it completely rejects the rights of the defendants.
    • A comparatively minor one, but valid nonetheless: In front of the jury, Kaffee offers to stipulate that Kendrick told the entire platoon not to touch Santiago at a meeting if Ross will stipulate that none of the other platoon members were near Dawson and Downey's room during the timeframe afterwards when Kendrick had a conversation with them the other platoon members were not privy to. There's nothing wrong with such a stipulation per se, but it would never be offered in front of the jury, as it would damage Kaffee's case if he offered it and Ross turned it down. Instead, Kaffee and Ross would speak privately to the judge, after which the judge would inform the jury of the stipulation (for those not in the legal community: a stipulation is something that both sides agree to, and the jury is to treat it as an absolute fact).
    • "Just following orders" is a valid defense in real lifenote , but not to this extent; Dawson and Downey would still be liable for the manslaughter (minimum) of Santiago. Jessep's testimony incriminates him in addition to them. It would likely be offered in mitigation in sentencing, but it would not excuse them. This one is on the prosecution though: they charged the defendants with murder, not manslaughter, and murder requires intent. Since no poison was found, once it was established that the cause of death could have been an undiagnosed medical condition, intent could not be proven and the murder charge was, if you'll pardon the expression, dead on arrival.
    • Kaffee wouldn't be court-martialed for asking officers on the witness stand, no matter how highly-ranked, whether they committed a crime. If he gets out of line, the prosecution will object and the judge will decide if the court allows such questioning. However, defense lawyers are allowed to make such questions and not face any kind of court-martial.
  • Artistic License – Military:
    • When Kaffee (a Lieutenant Junior Grade) first meets Galloway (a Lieutenant Commander), he does not salute, despite the fact that she outranks him by several pay grades. Nor does he, at any point during their first meeting, show her the deference or respect that her rank entitles her to. Nor does Galloway object to being treated in this fashion. Later, when she finally rips into him for his attitude, his response is the definitely not okay "I'm sexually aroused, Commander!". That would be bad enough in a civilian context, but in the Military context, spoken to a senior officer, even in the time period of the movie that would have been an express ticket to a discharge.note  Even given that the point is to firmly establish that Kaffee is just a Mildly Military child of privilege who's marking time, it's way over the line, into territory where Kaffee's trial could be the subject of the movie.
    • Kendrick's admission, while under oath and in court, that he ordered a Marine to be confined to barracks for seven days and given only water and vitamin supplements for that entire time would have instantly resulted in him being arrested on the spot and facing charges himself. Any such punishments are completely against the Uniform Code of Military Justice and there is no way such an admission would be completely ignored by the Judge. "Bread and water" punishments were still on the books at the time both the play and movie were written (they were banned in 1995) but were typically limited to Navy ships where other disciplines would have a lesser effect. Even then, such punishments were limited to three days in duration and under the strict supervision of corpsmen and medical personnel.
    • Similarly the Jeep driver's assertion that the Cubans "might want to take a shot" at a Navy officer wearing white. Doing so unprovoked would be an unambiguous act of war. Whatever one might say about the Castro regime, it's safe to say that starting a war with the US is not high on its list of goals (especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, which happened during filming).
    • Combined with Hollywood Law, as there is no charge in the UCMJ of "conduct unbecoming a Marine." There is "conduct unbecoming an officer," but Dawson and Downey are enlisted personnel. The closest charges that would apply to them would be Article 93, "cruelty and maltreatment," or Article 134, "general article," which covers charges that are otherwise not codified in their own Articles.
    • After being convicted of conduct unbecoming, Dawson and Downey are given a dishonorable discharge. In real-life, this would be seen as an act of Disproportionate Retribution, especially considering that the government had Jessep to make an example of, and would be what you'd expect them to receive (along with jail time) if they had set out to murder Santiago. The actual punishment would more likely be a bad conductnote  discharge, which "only" sees the recipient ejected from the military and stripped of all veterans' benefits; a dishonorable discharge additionally sees the recipient banned for life from owning any firearms, and is treated by many states as legally equivalent to a felony conviction.
    • The subplot of Jessep arranging for the deletion of all records of a flight that could have taken Santiago off the base before he was murdered is complete and total nonsense. Bottom line, he's just a Colonel with a limited amount of authority, and trying to have tower records altered is something that would land him in more hot water than he could imagine. In addition, it was an Air Force flight, and in order to completely "erase" the flight, then the cargo manifest, list of passengers, flight plan, radio transmissions, fuel consumed, and the tower records for the Air Force base that the flight originated from, would all have to be erased. Isn't going to happen. There is some low-level muttering about the Marine brass covering for Jessep because he is on the fast track from promotion, but there's no way anyone would stick their neck out for him to that extent. Hell, just the act of contacting the Air Force base to try to have the tower records altered would trigger so many red flags and fireworks that he would be relieved of command and facing charges before the day was out.
      • The film tries to Hand Wave this by saying Jessep is about to be appointed to the National Security Council as the Director of Operations and thus he has enough political capital to be able to pull the necessary strings to make the records of the flight vanish. However this is actually averted in the original play; Jessep is able to cover up the flight taking off (which as the commander of the base, is at least slightly plausible) but not the flight landing, and Kaffee is able to obtain the logs of the latter through Markinson.
      • The Hand Wave detailed above runs into Artistic License – Military, full stop. Jessep is a full Colonel, he ranks below all the General Officer ranks and would have little-to-no political capital. If there was any it would be held by senior Generals and Admirals. The only Marine on the Joint Chiefs is the Commandant of the Marine Corps. In addition, if Jessep was being considered for the NSC, the Marines wouldn't have him in Cuba, he'd be at the Pentagon in DC being groomed for the position.
    • The idea that the Base Commander would be talking directly to a Platoon Leader about a Private and not involving the Company Commander at all is utterly bizarre, especially since the issue at hand is that the Private jumped the chain of command. The obvious implication of the scene is showcase from the get-go that Jessep is that much of a Control Freak, considering all the other atrocities the plot ends up exposing about him, but regardless that can be a jarring detail if you know command structures.
    • Kaffee states Jessep is wearing his "Class A dress uniform" in court, which Jessep confirms. He isn't. The green and khaki uniform Jessep is wearing is the Service A uniform; "Class A dress" is the Blue Dress A, the Marine Corps's iconic midnight blue coat, sky blue trousers with scarlet stripe, and a white peaked cap (or barracks cover), also known as Dress Blues. Dress Blues would be wildly inappropriate (and unauthorized) to wear in court (Service is the prescribed order of dress for serving on a court martial or attending an off-base criminal court).
    • Neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps has an "internal affairs" department. The closest thing (and the department which would be responsible for this) is the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (yes, that NCIS). A more accurate script would have had Commander Galloway work for the NCIS instead of "internal affairs"; however, NCIS agents are civilians and don't wear a military uniform .
  • As You Know: Delivered by Jessep to Markinson, but then played with in it allows him to get to the real point of what he’s trying to say:
    Jessep: We go back a while. We went to the Academy together, we were commissioned together, we did our tours in Vietnam together. But I've been promoted up through the chain of command with greater speed and success than you have. Now if that's a source of tension or embarrassment for you, I don't give a shit. We're in the business of saving lives. Don't ever question my orders in front of another officer.
  • Asshole Victim: Averted. It's implied Santiago tried to sell Dawson out for a transfer even though Dawson was his only ally. Nevertheless, he didn't deserve to be hog-tied and left to suffocate.
  • Ate His Gun: Markinson's alternative to testifying against Jessep because he feels that he failed to act sooner and refuses to betray his commander.
  • Awful Truth: Jessep's rant at the end is about why he admits his actions might disgust people, but he feels they are necessary to protect the nation.
  • Ax-Crazy: Colonel Jessep. He orders a Code Red that ultimately kills a marine, doesn't flinch from the deaths of Santiago or Markinson, and, after his Villainous Breakdown, lunges screaming at Kaffee.
  • Backfire on the Witness Stand: The cross-examining of Downey almost single-handedly derails the defense when Ross manages to make Downey confess that he was not given the orders for the Code Red directly from the brass, but rather that it was Dawson (a man who would want Santiago dead as accuser and sole witness of the fence shooting Dawson allegedly did) who got them and told Downey to come along. As for why neither Marine told Kaffee this little bombshell, the answer is "You Didn't Ask".
  • Backhanded Compliment:
    Kaffee: Lieutenant Kendrick - can I call you Jon?
    Kendrick: No, you may not.
    Kaffee: Have I done something to offend you?
    Kendrick: No, I like all you Navy boys. Every time we gotta go some place to fight, you fellas always give us a ride.
  • Badass Boast:
    Col. Jessep: 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. They are leading counsel for the defense and prosecution respectively in the case and display extensive legal knowledge in both public and private situations.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: As Galloway and Weinberg are leaving Kaffee's apartment the night before the trial starts:
    Galloway: Kaffee, I—
    Kaffee: I know what you're going to say. You don't have to. We've had our differences. I said some things I didn't mean, you said some things you didn't mean, but you're happy I stuck with the case. And if you've gained a certain respect for me over the last three weeks...well, of course, I'm happy about that. But we don't have to make a whole big deal out of that. You like me? I won't make you say it.
    Galloway: I was just going to tell you to wear matching socks tomorrow.
    Kaffee: (Beat) Okay! Good tip.
  • Batman Gambit:
    • Knowing that the Dawson/Downey case is potentially embarrassing to a high-ranking marine official and trying to make it go away quickly and quietly, the powers that be assign it to Lt. Kaffee anticipating that he will follow his usual tactic of avoiding trial by making a plea-bargain for a reduced sentence.
    • Kaffee uses Obfuscating Stupidity quite a bit on the Marines to either box them up or get their reactions. Unfortunately, Galloway clearly doesn't understand what he's doing and tips Kaffee's hand during the lunch with Jessep, clearly frustrating Kaffee.
    • This also plays into the final scene in court, where Kaffee uses Jessep's hard-nosed reputation against him to set him up for the Armor-Piercing Question.
  • Berserk Button: Kaffee is fine when Ross tells him he was bullied into taking the case to trial (Ross even admits he practically dared Kaffee to do so), but gets very upset when Ross claims the memory of Kaffee's father (a renowned trial lawyer) also did the trick.
    Kaffee: You're a lousy fucking softball player, Jack!
    • Jessep responds to Kaffee telling him he needs Santiago’s transfer orders for his file by essentially biting his head off and insisting Kaffee ask “nicely”. While this plays into Jessep’s obsession that people take his authority as unquestionable, it also might have to do with the fact that no such orders existed as Santiago was never going to be transferred and Kaffee asking for it forces Jessep to give him a fake one Markinson signed after Santiago’s death.
    • Judge Randolph is a remarkably neutral authority figure for most of the film, but even he doesn't take it lightly when Jessep mouths off to him one too many.
      Jessep: 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'.
      Jessep: 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 Jessep a look) I'm quite certain I've earned it. Take your seat, Colonel.
    • Kendrick has the same flaw as Jessep. When Kaffee brings up how Dawson disobeyed an order to not bring food to a Marine on barracks restrictions and questions what exactly Dawson did wrong, he only responds with barely concealed rage at having his authority questioned and seems like he wants to physically attack Kaffee for doing so.
  • Big Bad: Col. Nathan Jessep. Dawson and Downey acted on his illegal orders and Kaffee and his legal team have to thwart his attempts to evade justice and throw them under the bus.
  • 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.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Jessep 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 Jessep at the end. They don't have any actual information.
  • Bothering by the Book: This is Kaffee's preferred method of plea bargaining. When a prosecutor threatens jail time for Kaffee's client who was caught smoking oregano (thinking it was marijuana), Kaffee threatens to draw out the case for months by filing several motions and burying the guy in paperwork over this trivial matter unless he agrees to a plea.
  • 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."
    • "So this is what the inside of a courtroom looks like."
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Kaffee is a brilliant attorney with a fantastic mind and charisma and natural oratory skill that would give William Jennings Bryan pause. But he'd much rather practice getting his softball swing perfect. Part of it is that he's just riding out his contractual commitment to the Navy until he can get a job in the civilian world.
  • Broken-System Dogmatist: Jessep. When Kaffee finally has him on the ropes, Jessep angrily rants that he is the only one keeping America safe from its enemies, and if anyone has to die to do it, so be it.
  • Brutal Honesty: At the beginning of the movie, at the end of Galloway's interview for taking the case, it is suggested that she go get some coffee. She doesn't get the hint, and one of them bluntly asks her to please leave the room so they can talk about her behind her back.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Kaffee, while legitimately undisciplined and a little lazy for a military man, is incredibly able to pick up on the smallest irregularities throughout the film to indicate something is off about the whole case, eventually uncovering the whole plot.
    • Including the fact the case was assigned to him.
      Kaffee: Why does a Lieutenant Junior Grade with nine months' experience and a track record for plea bargaining get assigned to a murder case? Would it be so it never sees the inside of a courtroom?
    • He is also shown to be very good at plea bargaining, which is not an insignificant skill for a lawyer - he still needs to get the best deal for his client while satisfying the prosecutornote .
    • Jo Galloway is almost an inverted example. She’s referred to by her superiors as an excellent investigator but her focus and determination to seek justice at all costs make her a terrible trial lawyer that can’t see when compromise is the best option.
  • Call-Back: Jo asks Weinberg why he dislikes Dawson and Downey so much, and Weinberg fiercely replies that he hates them because they beat up and killed a weak kid because he couldn't run very fast, and everything else is just legal gameplaying. Later in the scene, Weinberg asks Jo the opposite question — why does she like them so much? She replies that they're willing to stand on a wall in the middle of the night and protect everyone else, and she thinks that's noble. This ultimately bears on the movie's conclusion, when Dawson acknowledges that Weinberg was (basically) right — Marines are supposed to stand up for the weak, not torment them.
  • The Cameo: Christopher Guest, who'd starred in two of Reiner's previous films note , plays a doctor on the stand.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Santiago's closet at the crime scene at the start leads to Kaffee's "Eureka!" Moment when he goes to retrieve the baseball bat at the end of the movie and looks up at his own array of uniforms and begin Spotting the Thread needed to challenge Jessep's story. For a guy who had been begging and pleading for a unit transfer and had supposedly received word he was finally getting his wish and was leaving on the first flight out the next day, why were Santiago's personal belongings and uniforms still squared away as though he wasn't leaving at 6 AM?
  • Church Militant / Gung Holier Than Thou: Kendrick is this in spades.
    Kendrick: 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. Jessep, and the Lord our God.
  • Clear Their Name: What Kaffee must do for Dawson and Downey who, while they carried out illegal orders, were forced to do so by a higher authority who left them high and dry.
  • Cliché Storm: Invoked; Kaffee has a throwaway conversation with the local newsstand vendor involving each of them trying to wryly out-cliché the other.
  • Co-Dragons: Markinson is Jessep's Only Sane Man counsel who tried to offer reasonable, legal options for dealing with Santiago while Kendrick is his attack dog who was more than eager to follow the brutish commands of his colonel.
  • Colonel Kilgore: Being a man who eats breakfast three hundred yards away from men who are trained to kill him, Colonel Jessep 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.
  • Court-martialed: The entire premise of the movie. Kaffee's Heroic BSoD included saying to Galloway that putting Jessep on the stand and failing would get him court-martialed.
  • Danger Takes A Back Seat: Lt Col Markinson (the highly creepy J.T. Walsh) does this to Kaffee.
  • Deadly Hazing: It's eventually uncovered that the case was not murder, as the troopers had been ordered to haze a recruit, but unbeknownst to them their teammate had a heart condition and as a result died from the stress.
  • Deadpan Snarker: This is a Sorkin film so this is expected. Even in a cast full of snark, Kaffee reigns supreme.
  • Death Glare: Kaffee gives the doctor one as he finishes his examination after all but outright blaming him for being negligent in assessing Santiago's well-being and physical incapacity as a Marine.
  • Deconstruction: Jessep serves as one of these on the concept of a Colonel Kilgore who is essentially given a blank check to do anything he wants as long as it is for the sake of national defense. In having this mindset, however, he practically steps on everything he claimed to uphold for the sake of his own ego, and then, when a call he made ended up killing one of the Marines under his command, he immediately throws two other Marines (also under his command) under the bus and follows up by doing everything in his power to cover up his involvement. Suffice to say, instead of being A Father to His Men who had to make a tough call, he comes across as a cowardly, egotistical, incompetent commander who shouldn't have been trusted to run an outhouse let alone a military prison whose ego and pettiness killed a young man whose worst crime was that he wasn't as cut out for the Corps as he thought.
  • The Dilbert Principle: Kaffee and Weinberg are both better lawyers than Jo, but she outranks them because promoting her was the quickest easiest way to get her away from trial work.
  • Dirty Coward:
    • Jessep, who despite his claims of toughness, was willing to throw two Marines under a bus to protect himself.
    • Markinson believes so strongly that Jessep will do anything to win the case and has connections powerful enough to do so (even if it doesn't makes sense—see Artistic License – Military above) that he goes on the lam, provides his info to Kaffee Deep Throat-style, prefers to blow his brains out rather than testify when the latter subpoenas him. In his suicide note (to Santiago's mother), he states "the only truth that you need to know is that I was too weak-willed to prevent your kid's death".
    • Santiago tossed Dawson, the only person in Guantanamo willing to stand by his side as a brother Marine and protected him from the other Marines' bullying, under the bus with testimony of a (possible, but never truly answered) grievous violation of the base's rules of engagement for the sake of being transferred back to the mainland.
    • Commander Stone lied about Santiago being poisoned and tried to pin it on Dawson and Downey to save his own ass after he failed to spot Santiago's heart condition.
  • The Ditz: Downey is very, very, very dim, to the point that he needs Dawson's lead. It's even lampshaded at one point when Jo warns Kaffee that, even if they have rehearsed the night before, he must remember to ask Downey's questions in the simplest words possible (and when Ross' cross-interrogation blind-sides them with an up-to-then unknown detail, Downey spends a long time asking Dawson what to do (and then answers when Dawson orders him to) rather than answer on his own initiative). Furthermore, at the moment of being sentenced, he also needs to have it explained that, yes, they did commit a crime regardless and deserve a dishonorable discharge.
  • Don't Call Me "Sir": Kaffee says this to Dawson but he's too by-the-book to obey. When Dawson eventually does, it's a sign that he's lost any respect for Kaffee as an officer. And then finally a sign that Kaffee has earned it back at the very end.
  • Dressing to Die: Lt. Col. Markinson donned his full dress Marine uniform before he Ate His Gun.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: After Markinson commits suicide, Kaffee suffers a Heroic BSoD and gets drunk.
  • Empathic Environment: It's pouring rain the day the team has a bad day in court and seriously considers that the guys are doomed. It's a beautiful and sunny day when they get over their collective Heroic BSoD and get their acts together.
  • The End: Used straight, in a fairly rare example for a film made in the 1990s. Rob Reiner says on the DVD commentary that it felt right, with the story being a sort of old-fashioned morality play.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Done early, and it sets the stage for the critical plot point later. While discussing Santiago, transferring him off the base to just get rid of the problem comes up. This clearly pisses off Jessep, who starts saying they should just transfer everyone, shut down the base, and withdraw from Cuba completely. Taking it up a notch, he calls for one of the Marines in the outer office to come in and starts telling him to call the President and inform him that he's shutting the base down and sending everyone home. While his voice is dripping with sarcasm, the important part of the scene is that the Marine he is addressing does not bat an eye and turns around when Jessep is done, fully prepared to go call the President. Jessep has to stop him and specifically tell him not to call the President before he can let him leave the room. Bottom line, Jessep's orders are always obeyed. As everyone knows, this fact comes back to bite him in the ass hard.
    • Kaffee is introduced playing softball, seemingly skipping out on a meeting with the prosecutor on his current case. When said prosecutor tracks him down, Kaffee manages to get a sweet plea bargain for his client simply by appealing to his desire not to have this relatively stupid case (the defendant smoked oregano thinking it was pot) consume three months of his life. It shows Kaffee is lazy and undisciplined, preferring to take the path of least resistance, but also a smart and practical lawyer.
    • Galloway enters the movie over-rehearsing her planned plea to her commander about how she believes Dawson and Downey are victims of circumstance and want to fight for them (and then flubs it, anyway). This and the subsequent discussion about her reveal she’s a principled and thorough lawyer, but she overthinks everything and refuses to compromise on anything when it simply isn’t worth the effort.
  • "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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Played with yet ultimately subverted in regards to Jessep's opinion of Kendrick. He confides to Markinson in private that that he thinks Kendrick is a “weasel” but given Jessep approves of and even encourages Kendrick’s worst behaviors, it’s hard to figure out exactly what about Kendrick he finds distasteful.
    • Played straight when Jessep expresses genuine respect for Kaffee’s father for winning a landmark desegregation case.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: When the member of the court exits the courtroom after Jessep confesses, his reaction is not anger or denial, but confusion at something that strikes him as ridiculous, asking "Colonel, what the hell is this? I did my job and I'd do it again" with the bored irritation as if someone just stole one of his French fries at lunchtime.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: When Kaffee questions Doctor Stone, he proposes a "hypothetical" scenario that Santiago had a congenital heart condition, and asks the doctor what the symptoms of such a condition would be. The doctor describes the symptoms... and realizes they were exactly what Santiago was complaining of during his routine physical. Meaning the doctor failed to diagnose a serious condition that not only gave Santiago an excellent reason for requesting a transfer away from Gitmo (and the Marine Corps an excellent reason for wanting him off the line), but also rendered him fatally vulnerable to the hazing he received from Downey and Dawson.
  • Failed Future Forecast: Can affect perceptions of Jessep's attitude. The play was written in the mid-'80s, but the Soviet Union broke up during the production of the film, which makes it even less likely that the Cuban Revolutionary Army forces on the other side of the Guantanamo perimeter fence would be stupid enough to pick a fight with Jessep's Marines: said another way, Cuba's most significant military ally was in no position to back them up even if it wanted to be the aggressor in World War III. But Jessep still appears to think the Cold War could go hot at any moment.
  • 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.
  • Fatal Flaw:
    • With Jessep, it's the fact that he's a Gung Holier Than Thou hard-ass that doesn't tolerate his orders being questioned in any way, shape or form nor anybody else in the military performing in a way he thinks is poorly (even if justified because of such reasons like bad health or being a woman). He's so arrogant that when Kaffee asks him if he ordered the code red, Judge Randolph tells him he doesn't have to answer the question... and Jessep answers it anyway because he's that proud of what he did.
    • With Markinson, it's his Undying Loyalty to Jessep even in the face of a crime that he acknowledges is going too far (and so when he's confronted with having to testify, and thus betray Jessep, he decides to take the coward's way out and puts the blame on his lack of willpower to prevent it on his letter to Santiago's mother).
    • With Dawson, it's his own Gung Holier Than Thou attitude that makes him refuse an easy (well, easier) way out of the mess he and Downey are in because he sees it as dishonorable (he was Just Following Orders, so it couldn't have been that illegal, right?). He realizes at the end of the movie that his willingness to follow an immoral order made him dishonorable anyway.
    • With Downey, it's his stupidity, which makes him follow orders unhesitatingly (and, furthermore, apparently doesn't seem to have much in the way of common sense).
    • With Jo, it's her Knight Templar tendencies (that made her refuse any and all plea options and go straight to court, which could have gotten Dawson and Downey executed or imprisoned for life and may have gotten Kaffee a black mark on his file, be expelled from the Navy or worse if his courtroom antics hadn't worked) and desire to catch those actually responsible for Santiago's death and other misconducts on Gitmo (namely Jessep), even if that is not the actual objective of her assignment and she's embarrassingly wet behind the ears as a JAG attorney (doubly so as a Lieutenant Commander, a grade which requires at least 12 years in the service to reach).
  • Faux Affably Evil: Jessep 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.
    • His lunch with the defense team sees him go from polite to crass to volatile at the drop of a hat.
  • The Film of the Play: A film adapted from a play by its screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, a play that was first produced on Broadway by David Brown in 1989.
  • Foreshadowing: Markinson criticises Kendrick over his handling of "the Curtis Bell incident" in the first meeting the pair have with Jessep about Santiago. This incident forms the basis of Kaffee's questioning of Kendrick in the courtroom and is revealed to have been a Code Red.
  • 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.
  • General Ripper: Colonel Jessep towards the Cubans whose island his base is on. He essentially can't accept that the Cold War is over (and that the Cuban government isn't stupid enough to try and restart it) and is constantly on guard as if he was stationed in the Korean DMZ. This mentality combined with his Gung Holier Than Thou attitude is shown to filter down to the troops.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: When Markinson puts his Beretta 92SB inside his mouth, we cut away to the window just before he shoots himself dead.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: The famous climactic scene between Kaffee and Jessep. Even Jack Ross gets in on the action.
    Ross: Dammit, Kaffee!
  • Hate Sink: Commander Stone is easily the most detestable character in the film. After misdiagnosing Santiago's health problems during his medical examination, he lies about the cause of death (claiming the rag the Marines used was poisoned despite there being no evidence of such) to save his own ass.
    • Col. Jessep isn't that far behind him. His only redeeming quality is that some of the arguments he makes are not completely wrong. Personality-wise though? He's an arrogant, misogynistic, petulant, narcissistic bully, whose incompetence indirectly led to the death of one of his men, which he then attempted to cover up by throwing two more of his men under the bus.
    • Lt Kendrick is almost as bad as Jessep, being a rude, egotistical weasel who represents every terrible stereotype about Marines. He doesn't even pretend to be charming or less of a macho dickhead like Jessep does.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Jessep is a sexist, in addition to all of his other winning qualities.
  • Heroic BSoD: Kaffee goes out and gets rip-roaring drunk after his star witness kills himself.
  • He's Back!: Downey's terrible examination for the defence combined with the suicide of their star witness Markinson causes Kaffee to get drunk and blame their seemingly inevitable defeat on Galloway. Weinberg's reminiscing about Kaffee's father and encouragement that only Kaffee could put Jessep on the stand and win enables him to mend fences and build towards winning the case.
    Kaffee: "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 simultaneously 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."
  • Hoist by Their Own Petard: Jessep ends up being his own worst enemy.
  • Hollywood Law:
    • Jo's infamous "I strenuously object" scene, which she justifies by saying that she got their objection to the doctor's testimony noted for the record. Objections are always noted for the record. Everything (with certain particular exceptions) said in the trial is supposed to be noted for the record; that's what the record is for. It has been long established by then that Jo's understanding of the law is limited, which is why she works in Internal Affairs in the first place.
    • From the very beginning Jo looks down on Kaffee because he resolves all of his cases with plea bargains, while she is so opposed to plea bargaining that as a trial lawyer, she only resolved three cases in two years. In real life, Jo would be considered too inefficient to be employable as a lawyer and too many lawyers like her would cause the justice system to collapse. Plea bargains don't make for compelling stories, trials make for better drama so Hollywood writers love them. In the movie, it is made to appear that Jo showed Kaffee the true meaning of justice by getting him to do a trial, but she's actually looking down on him for being good at his job, while she is not.
    • Witnesses in real life are rarely if ever allowed in the courtroom during the proceedings, for the precise reason that Kaffee puts them there: their presence, if noted, may alter another witness's testimony, and they may hear testimony that alters their own.
  • 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, Jessep thinks nothing of ignoring the orders of his own superiors because he thinks he knows better. He lectures about loyalty yet is more than willing to throw two of his men under the bus to save his own hide. Best illustrated when he insists on being addressed by his proper rank in court and given the respect he feels he's earned before mouthing off and openly disrespecting the judge who responds with barely concealed rage.
  • Improperly Placed Firearms: Lt. Colonel Markinson commits suicide with a nickel-plated Beretta 92SB. While this is a fairly common stand-in for the M9 variant of the Beretta 92 and is only really visually distinguishable by the rounder trigger guard, later on in court, it's mentioned that Markinson used a .45. This is probably due to the original play being written in the late eighties, only a few years after the M1911A1 was replaced. It was probably originally supposed to be this, but the script was probably never updated. Some cuts of the film redubbed the line swapping out ".45" for the more generic "pistol".
  • Indy Ploy: Ultimately, all the false transfers, doctored logs, and witness testimonies mean nothing in regards to proving the case. Kaffee's last-minute hail mary to Jessep's ego saves the day.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: When Kaffee and Ross first meet about a plea bargain, Ross offers up a deal when Kaffee brings up Code Reds, but makes a point of telling him that Kendrick had met with all the Marines of the company right before Santiago was killed, and ordered them not to touch Santiago. When Kaffee tells Weinberg about this later, he realizes he never even brought up Kendrick, and that's the first time he realizes there's more to the case than he originally thought.
  • Interservice Rivalry: The good guys are all Navy while the villains are Marines. The good guys see the Marines as Knight Templar fanatics who will endanger their own men's lives for the sake of reputation while the villains see their Navy counterpoints as weak and having no concept of what it truly takes to keep the country safe. Somewhat qualified by Col. Randolph, the judge, a Reasonable Authority Figure; Ross, who's friends with Kaffee and is at worst a Punch-Clock Villain; as well as the likable Corporal Barnes, who offers the visiting Navy officers friendly advice on how not to get shot.
  • It's All About Me: Jessep 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 of the major crimes, he accepts a dishonorable discharge for "conduct unbecoming a Marine," admitting that he should have stood up for Santiago. This 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..."
  • Jerkass:
    • Col Jessep. Aside from being the villain, he's also a colossal jerk to his underlings.
    • Also Kendrick. He's equally unpleasant to Kaffee and Galloway and becomes equally incensed when his authority is remotely questioned and he doesn't even have Jessep's false charm. Even Jessep refers to him as a "weasel".
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Kendrick says Santiago is dead because "he had no code, he had no honor, and God was watching." Kendrick is a jerk, but Dawson was the one person who stopped the other marines from beating up Santiago, and Santiago tried to get a transfer in exchange for testimony against Dawson for an illegal shooting Dawson may not even have committed.
    • Jessep is right that, as tragic and undeserving as Santiago's death was, Santiago was a substandard Marine and his incompetence was a burden to his unit. Somewhat subverted in that it’s clear that Santiago has some sort of medical condition that should necessitate a medical board discharge from the Marines but Jessep won’t even entertain a transfer from the unit.
    • Jessep makes a minor salient point when he castigates Markinson for directly disagreeing with him in front of a junior officer/platoon leader, which is considered poor form in the military. He condescendingly reminds Markinson that he's "been promoted up through the chain of command with greater speed and success" than Markinson, but that doesn't mean he's wrong.
    • Jessep was also right about officers being responsible for training the people under their command. While Santiago's problem was medical, Jessep had no way of knowing that. Had he gone about it the right way, deciding to help a substandard officer get better instead of shipping him off to be someone else's problem could have been considered the more noble approach.
    • After Dawson rejects the six-month offer, Kaffee wants to be taken off the case. Jo calls him "a used car salesman" and "an ambulance chaser with a rank". Jo is a terrible lawyer and her smug sense of superiority is completely unjustified. But, JAG officers don't get to choose who they represent. Kaffee was assigned to represent Dawson and Dawson had every right to reject the offer, even if it was a stupid decision. Once Dawson rejected the offer, Kaffee's job was to represent Dawson at trial. The fact that Kaffee thought he could quit the case just because he disagreed with Dawson's decision, proves that he was as lazy and entitled as Jo assumed.
  • Just Following Orders: Kaffee proposes using this as the basis for his court defense of Downey and Dawson: they were ordered by superior officers to discipline Santiago, and their "Code Red" just got out of hand. Weinberg retorts that that line of defense didn't work at Nuremberg and it didn't work at My Lai and it's not going to work now. Kaffee fires back that the difference with the Marines is that they were just carrying out a routine order they didn't think would result in any physical harm. But of course, Code Reds are illegal, regardless of what harm might ensue, so their clients should properly have refused the order. Kaffee ultimately gets them acquitted of the most serious charges largely by tricking their CO into admitting on the stand that he had given said illegal orders.
  • Kicked Upstairs: How Jo ended up in Internal Affairs. She took several months to close a simple case, forcing a promotion to a desk job.
  • Kindhearted Simpleton: Downey. He's more polite to his superiors than Dawson and he only knows how to follow orders.
  • Knight Templar: Colonel Jessep. 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...
    • Jo has shades of this as well. She is so hell-bent on exposing the abusive practices at Guantanamo Bay that when Jack Ross offers a plea to involuntary manslaughter (which the defendants are actually guilty of) she immediately rejects it and insists on going to trial, risking her clients getting the death penalty. This is another example of Hollywood Law, in real life, rejecting a plea bargain without consulting the client would get an attorney disbarred.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Jessep getting charged with Santiago's death after trying to pin it on Dawson and Downey.
  • Last-Second Term of Respect: Lance Corporal Dawson has little respect for his attorney, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, but because Kaffee's his superior officer, Dawson always addresses Kaffee as "sir", but he makes clear his disdain when doing so. After one particular rant at Kaffee, Dawson waits for almost two beats before adding, "Sir".
  • Lying to the Perp: See Bluffing the Murderer.
  • Manchild: Jessep is remarkably childish for a full bird colonel in the United States Marine Corps. Not only is he a He-Man Woman Hater, a Narcissist, and an imperious, contemptuous asshole in just casual conversation, he also seems to actively undermine his superior officers out of sheer egotism and acts more like an arrogant, callous, power-mad, self-absorbed, self-important school-yard bully than an actual commanding officer. Becomes most painfully obvious during his Villainous Breakdown at the end of the film, where he actually to tries to physically assault Kaffee in a courtroom filled with people the moment it sinks in that for once things aren't going to go his way.
    • Psychopathic Manchild: This is ultimately what Jessep is, an immature man who believes he has the right to act however he wants and shows no respect for anyone else.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": When Jessep confesses, the whole courtroom goes dead silent. Galloway looks like she's seen a ghost, Jack Ross looks like he's about to cry, and Kaffee's expression is a mixture of "I cannot believe that actually worked" and "you guys all saw that too, right?"
  • Meaningful Echo: Jo twice emphasised her superior position of Special Counsel for Internal Affairs. The first time she pushed her way into the Dawson/Downey case even though Kaffee was assigned as lead counsel. The second time, she warned Kaffee that his last ditch attempt to coax the truth out of Jessep could end badly, this time out of genuine concern.
  • 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. It’s more or less portrayed as his entire office is like this as his Commander at the beginning barely accosts Kaffee for being late.
    • 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. Not to mention, as a naval base, the base commander of Guantanamo is always a navy officer; the Marine company on Guantanamo is primarily for base security and ceremonial duties.
    • The chain of command for the Gitmo Marines is incredibly strange. For a situation involving a Private’s death, the Company Commander (the officer that should theoretically exist between Col. Jessep and Lt. Kendrick) is nowhere to be found. The idea that a full bird Colonel would be communicating directly to a Platoon Leader about an enlisted is laughable.
  • Miranda Rights: Ross recites these after Jessep confesses on the stand.
  • Mistaken Age: Kaffee, to Aunt Ginny. Aunt Ginny, to Kaffee.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Possibly on Dawson's end, as he was the only guy who protected Santiago from the wrath of their fellow marines only for Santiago to try to sell him down the river for an incident that was implied to have not even been Dawson's fault just so he could get his transfer out of Guantanamo. It certainly adds a whole new layer to why Dawson doesn't seem all that contrite, and it's certainly hard to blame him.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Jack tells Kaffee he was bullied into the courtroom by the memory of his dead father, Kaffee responds by shouting the mildly hilarious, "YOU'RE A LOUSY FUCKING SOFTBALL PLAYER, JACK!" Then it turns sad when Jack ignores his outburst and replies with apparently genuine regret, "Your boys are going down, Danny. I can't stop it any more."
  • Motive Rant: Jessep's rant is all about why he feels his actions were necessary.
  • 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 Jessep 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 Jessep in a bind and force him to admit the truth via the Armor-Piercing Question.
  • Narcissist: Jessep goes beyond even having a massive god complex. He disobeys his superior officers because he thinks he knows better than them, loves to hear himself talk, rather flippantly exploits others for his own gain, has a colossally overblown sense of self-importance, seems to think he and he alone is somehow 'special,' ("I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom.") demands excessive admiration and unquestioned obedience he clearly doesn't deserve, displays arrogance and haughtiness to his peers as well as his underlings, is an Entitled Bastard, displays a clear Lack of Empathy, and is seemingly incapable of even considering the mere possibility that he is ever wrong about anything. Even when confronted with irrefutable evidence that he is, he simply blames everyone else.
    • Kaffee lampshades this the morning that followed his decision to call Jessep in court: he knows, after having met Jessep only once, that the guy qualifies, mentioning Jessep's speech about the fact that he doesn't need medals (something he seems to take an even greater pride in than actual medals) and his Badass Boast; that's also how he knows Jessep will come in court, he just love to tell others how important he and his duty are.
    • "You have to ask me nicely. See, I can deal with the bullets, the bombs and the blood. I don't want money and I don't want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there, in that faggoty white uniform, and with your Harvard mouth, extend me some fucking courtesy". Self-obsession and pride seems to be the only things that keep Jessep going.
  • The Neidermeyer: Colonel Jessep 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. Jessep 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, whom he accuses of endangering the country by having him arrested. Dawson and Downey have an extreme case of this as well, but grow out of it by the end.
  • Nice Guy: Captain Ross, who completely lacks any dark or unlikable traits, especially when compared to many of his fellow marines. Jessep and Kendrick disgust him and he takes exception to Kaffee comparing him to them simply because they 'wear the same uniform.' He is on good terms with Kaffee and gives him solid advice throughout the film. It's hard to even consider him a Punch-Clock Villain since Downey and Dawson, the two marines he is prosecuting, while sympathetic, did through their own actions cause the death of a fellow marine by pulling an unofficial hazing drill on him that proved fatal. Hell, amongst the major supporting marine characters, he could probably be considered the Token Good Teammate for the Corps. When tasked to apprehend Lt. Kendrick, he’s practically beaming.
    • Also, Corporal Barnes, who in direct contrast to the rest of the marines on the stand, is nothing but polite and friendly with Kaffee the entire time he's being questioned. He's even clearly suppressing a chuckle when Kaffee points out that because the location of the mess hall isn't listed in the Gitmo rulebook, there's no way he could have ever had a meal there.
  • Noodle Incident: The Curtis Bell incident is mentioned several times throughout the film but never explained.
    Kendrick: That won't be necessary, Colonel, I'll handle the situation.
    Markinson: The same way you handled the Curtis Bell incident?
    • Turns out to be a Chekhov's Gun. The trial discusses details about the incidentnote  driving the point home to Dawson to never disobey an ordernote .
  • Not His Sled: In the play, Kaffee exposes Jessep because Markinson sent him the flight log book from Andrews Air Force Base, which Jessep forgot to change to match the GITMO book, indicating that the earlier flight Santiago could have been on did in fact exist. In the film, Jessep remembered to do this, so instead Kaffee exposes him by pointing out a flaw in Jessep's testimony: If Jessep ordered that Santiago was not to be harassed by his squad and Jessep's orders are always followed without question, then why would Santiago be in danger of being harmed and have to be transferred?
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: Jessep sees the Code Red as an invaluable tool in keeping discipline at Guantanamo Bay, which, in turn, will keep his troops alive and America safe. He even claims that Santiago's death potentially saved many lives though given the US isn’t at war with Cuba, whose lives are being saved isn’t exactly clear. In reality, he is just a colossal Jerkass with an ego who is mad that anyone questions his ability to do whatever the hell he wants, up to and including brutalising his own men and accidentally killing them.
    • His complete refusal to let PVT. Santiago (a Marine that clearly has medical problems serious enough that he should be medically chaptered out of the Corps) off the base appears to be not so much a concern of unit readiness and more stubbornly refusing to let any weakness in his unit come to light.
    • All of the marines repeatedly talk about loyalty and their code. Throughout the movie it becomes clear that loyalty is used as an excuse to not talk about abusive behavior and their code is just a means of intimidating people not to report criminal activity to law enforcement. They come across as no different than gangs and crime syndicates.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Kaffee does this quite a bit while at Gitmo to keep Kendrick and Jessep from suspecting that he's legitimately considering them as culprits in Santiago's death. Galloway's earnest grilling kind of ruins it though to Kaffee's annoyance.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Jessep 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 Jessep 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.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: When Kaffee grills Jessep in court over the Code Red, Ross breaks his Punch-Clock Villain persona shouting "DAMMIT KAFFEE!!!", in a tone that shows more worry than anger. He broke character because he was afraid Kaffee was going too far and was trying to snap him out of it.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Kiefer Sutherland doesn't quite get the hang of his character's Kentucky accent.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Jessep's justification for his actions.
  • The Perry Mason Method: "You want answers?" "I want the truth!!"... and so forth.
  • Pet the Dog: During questioning, Colonel Jessep 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 Jessep 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.
    • It's extremely minor but Kendrick, despite being a complete bastard, does respond that he saw Santiago as an average Marine rather than substandard as he had said in his reports, claiming he "saw no need to trample on a man's grave".
  • Plea Bargain: Dawson refuses to take one.
    "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."
  • Police Are Useless: The M.P. security detail keeping custody of Markinson didn't felt it necessary to take away his sidearm for some reason, which allowed him to blow his brains out rather than use any other method to commit suicide. Kaffee lampshades their effectiveness when he drunkenly points out the absurdity of the situation.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Col. Jessep's speech about superior officers is shockingly misogynist. Interestingly, Jessep 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. Jessep would have been required by law to salute her. Grace Hopper, still living at the time of the film's release, was promoted to Commodore on 15 Dec 1983 and her rank converted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) when the rank of Commodore went away in 1985. Jessep would also have been required to salute her. Jessep also calling Kaffee's uniform "faggoty" won't win him the audience's sympathy either. Though his respect for Lionel Kaffee's civil rights work implies that, horrible as he is, at least he's not a racist.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Dawson and Downey's tendency to only give information when specifically asked leads to them to leave a very vital piece of information out of their story to their lawyers. It severely damages their case and nearly costs them their freedom.
  • 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.
    • Ross even reveals he doesn't think Downey and Dawson should go to jail but he still has a job to do. He also seems to really dislike Kendrick and Jessep as much as Kaffee does, as at one point he tells Kaffee, "Don't you dare lump me in with them just because we wear the same uniform." He even seems happy to be heading off to arrest Kendrick at the end.
    • Corporal Barnes is a lesser example of this, while he's a Marine like all the other bad guys, he's very polite and good-humored to Kaffee during his cross-examination and seems like a very nice guy overall. He even seems to be pretty amused when Kaffee points out that because the location of the mess hall is not in the marine handbook, there's no way he could have ever eaten a meal.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The original stage production had Kaffee respond to Jessep's Motive Rant as follows:
    Kaffee: 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— but he isn't. Not by the honour-code of his organisation, nor the legal system of his country, let alone most personal moral codes.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Markinson quietly objects to Colonel Jessep'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 and so stays neutral, never showing preference for either side and giving everyone a fair chance and as much leeway as he can. What makes him this instead of a prop with dialog is the fact that he makes clear he will not tolerate disrespect and in his courtroom, he is the one who calls the shots, not Jessep:
      Jessep: Colonel.
      Kaffee: What's that?
      Jessep: 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'.
      Jessep: 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 Jessep a look* I'm quite certain I've earned it. Take your seat, Colonel.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Whether or not the fence shooting actually happened and the specifics regarding it. The only one who can testify is Santiago, and not only is there plenty of implication that he was lying that he had evidence in order to try to save his own ass but he also takes the information to the grave.
  • Sarcastic Well Wishing: Col. Jessep does this as part of his Villainous Breakdown: after trying to outright attack Kaffee, he then sarcastically compliments him for his getting him arrested with as much restraint as he can muster.
  • Sanity Slippage: From the moment Jessep 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.
  • Ship Tease: Kaffee and Galloway eventually develop a mutual attraction, and the latter actually shows up at the former's house to ask them out on the spot; however, it doesn't go anywhere, and they both go their separate ways at the end of the filmnote .
  • Shout-Out: The title, to the Marines recruiting commercial whose tagline is "We're looking for a few good men".
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: After Jessep 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."
  • Signature Line: "You can't handle the truth!"
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Colonel Jessep, relatively speaking. Jessep is the base commander at Guantanamo Bay, a fairly important posting (note that the movie predates The War on Terror) which at least de facto borders enemy territory, and has a large contingent of Marines under his command. However, this isn't nearly enough for a man of Jessep's inflated sense of importance: he constantly plays up how he's supposedly "on the wall" defending civilization from such terrifying enemies as the Cubans and how he, a mere colonel, understands how to defend the nation (in peacetime!) better than anyone alive.
  • Smug Snake: Jessep and Kendrick
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Like Colonel Jessep, Lieutenant Kendrick is callous, cruel, and entirely without scruples. He lacks Jessep's outward charm though, so his nastiness is far more obvious.
  • Spanner in the Works: Both Galloway and Dawson are this to Jessep'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.
    • Galloway also serves as this for Kaffee during their trip to Cuba. While Kaffee is trying to play dumb to keep Jessep and Kendrick off the scent that he’s looking into then as guilty parties, Galloway’s sincere grilling of them puts them on alert anyway, much to Kaffee’s frustrations.
    • Dawson is one for his own case by failing to directly tell Kaffee the Code Red was an order given by Lt. Kendrick simply because Kaffee didn’t directly ask him.
  • Spotting the Thread: A downplayed example when Kaffee explains why he decided to stay on as lead counsel:
    "Why does a Lieutenant Junior Grade with 9 months' experience and a track record for plea bargaining get assigned a murder case? Would it be so it never sees the inside of a courtroom?"
    • A straighter example emerges during Jessep's initial questioning, in which Kaffee points out that Jessep had packed quite a few items for a one-day trip - while Santiago hadn't done any packing whatsoever, despite his reported imminent transfer out of Guantanamo.
  • Stopped Dead in Their Tracks: When Kaffee inadvertently ends up driving Markinson (see Danger Takes a Backseat above), they're chatting until Markinson says, "Santiago was never going to be transferred off the base," at which point Kaffee slams on the brakes and asks him to repeat what he said.
  • Straw Misogynist: Jessep makes chauvinistic comments about Galloway and military women in general right to her face. To say nothing of his disparaging remarks about Kaffee's "faggoty white uniform." It's pretty clear that Nathan Jessep thinks anyone who isn't Nathan Jessep is beneath him.
  • 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.
  • Suddenly Shouting: Dawson does this when he rejects the plea bargain Kaffee had gotten from Ross:
    "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 THAT I CAN GO HOME IN SIX!!! MONTHS!!!" [composes himself] "Sir."
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Jack Ross. The audience knows that the defendants didn't mean to kill Santiago, but from Ross's point of view, Santiago was going to testify against Dawson, Dawson killed him, the doctor said the rag was probably poisoned, and the only evidence that Dawson was given an order was the killer's word. Ross was being an honest prosecutor by putting Dawson and Downey on trial.
  • 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.
  • They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!: When disrespect is shown between Kaffee and Jessep, Judge Randolph immediately sets everyone straight. After Kaffee is corrected and Jessep is seen smirking, Randolph immediately and tersely reminds him that he is in charge, sternly telling him, "(T)he witness will address this court as 'judge' or 'your honor'. *gives Jessep a look* I'm quite certain I've earned it. Take your seat, Colonel." Not entirely incidentally, things begin to go downhill for Jessep right after.
  • Those Two Guys: Dawson and Downey. They are the direct co-actors in Santiago's demise and Downey relies on Dawson's judgement for pretty much everything.
  • 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, as Galloway does directly ask him out on the spot towards the midpoint of the film.
  • 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 to the point that Dawson needs to direct him on what to do in front of everyone. And ultimately justified.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The Motive Rant that undoes Col. Jessep 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.
  • Treachery Is a Special Kind of Evil: A major theme in the film where different moral codes and conceptions of treachery clash with each other.
    • Colonel Jessep ordered the Code Red on the victim, Willy Santiago, because he tried to exchange incriminating information against a transfer, but then automatically sacrifice those who loyally apply that order.
    • Lieutenant Kendrick candidly declares in court that the victim died because he has no honor and that Dawson once committed a crime by giving food to a punished man.
    • Lieutenant-Colonel Markinson commits suicide because he can't bear his guilt and refuses to testify against his superior.
    • After Judge Randolph orders Downey and Dawson to be dishonorably discharged from the marine corps, the latter concludes they indeed betrayed the victim and the principles they were supposed to defend as Marines.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Santiago was willing to rat on Dawson, the one who wouldn't allow the others in the squad to harass him, for his own benefit. It's implied he may have been knowingly lying about the nature of Dawson's fence shooting in order to get transferred out.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Averted, where the night before Jessep 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.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: To Colonel Jessep, 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, and if a Willie Santiago dies because of it, that’s fine.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Sorkin based the story on a real case where his sister worked for the JAG corps, where a marine in Guantanamo was nearly killed in a hazing that a superior officer ordered.
  • The Vietnam Vet: Jessep and Markinson are managed as having served in Vietnam together.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Jessep 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.
  • Villainous Valor: Jessep is a complete piece of shit, but one of the ribbons on his uniform is that of the Navy Cross, awarded only for extraordinary heroism in combat. It does absolutely nothing to justify his utterly craven moral cowardice, however.
  • 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.
  • Weakness Is Just a State of Mind: How Jessep viewed Santiago; Santiago was physically unable to keep up with the rest of the platoon, when in-actuality Santiago was provably medically fragile. The "Code Red" hazing that Jessep ordered to toughen up Santiago, plus this fragility, led to Santiago's death.
  • "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 Jessep had no intention of transferring Santiago.
    • Jessep’s confession on the stand shocks the whole courtroom, including Kaffee, despite employing The Perry Mason Method. Kaffee is so visibly shocked that it worked, that it takes him a few moments to recover and seek a recess so Jessep can be formally arrested.
  • Worthy Opponent: Subtle, but the look that Jessep gives Kaffee in the end once he realizes Jessep played him is a mix of anger, hatred, and...admiration. Make no mistake, if there was no one between him and Kaffee, Jessep would have throttled him on the spot, but, perhaps for the first and last time in the film, he sees the lawyer as the cunning, and equal, adversary that Kaffee really was.
  • 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.
  • You Didn't Ask: This is the reason Dawson gives when Kaffee asks him why they didn't tell him about the order to give Santiago a Code Red when he first talked to them. It’s also the reason Dawson and Downey didn’t mention that Downey wasn’t actually present when Kendrick ordered the Code Red.


Video Example(s):


You Can't Handle the Truth!

Lt. Kaffee and Colonel Jessup go all in this epic courtroom battle scene!

How well does it match the trope?

4.92 (38 votes)

Example of:

Main / HamToHamCombat

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