FilmDrunk

FilmDrunk Law Review: 10 Fascinating Reasons to Convict A Few Good Men

This week, in lieu of the usual Hollyweird Legal Round-Up, our Hollywood Legal Correspondent, Buttockus Finch, asked if he could instead break down the Tom Cruise classic, A Few Good Men, from a legal perspective. I nodded noncommittally as is my response to most things, and here we are. Enjoy. -Vince

Turn off your cellphones and open your Goobers, theatergoers! Today, your consigliere provides expert testimony about courtroom melodrama A Few Good Men (1992).

Background

AFGM was written by Aaron Sorkin, based on his play of the same name. Just as Joyce had Dublin, Faulkner had Mississippi and Lou Reed had all of the parts of Manhattan where taxis don’t go, Sorkin has Sorkinland, a parallel America where the men are straw, the women are terrible at their jobs, and pomposity is coin of the realm. It is here that our tale is set.

Fascinating Fact 1: This Movie Is A Six Degrees Bonanza.

This movie is over 20 years old; it was a major hit, and is remembered for exactly 9 words: Tom Cruise saying “I want the truth!” and Jack Nicholson responding, “You can’t handle the truth!” Even today, the sexual tension between them is palpable (“Ever put your life in another man’s hands?” You may be asking, but I’m not telling, Jack).

The scene is as compelling today as it ever was:

People forget that the film also includes Demi Moore as Woman Who Is Bad At Lawyering, Kevin Bacon as Captain of the Gentile Name All-Star Team (co-captain: Jon Hamm), Kiefer Sutherland as Psycho Who Later Becomes Jack Bauer, Noah Wyle as About To Audition for ER, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Guy Who Will Win An Oscar in Another Cruise Movie and Have a Terrible Career Afterwards, and Kevin Pollak as Jew Sidekick Who Inexplicably Never Says Hand Me the Keys You F*cking C*cksucker. So if people still play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, this movie is almost as helpful as JFK.

Fascinating Fact 2: Cruise’s Character Is An Underqualified Dickweed Who Should Not Be the Defense Attorney.

1992 was a long time ago, although Cruise looked disturbingly similar to the way he does now. He was already a major star (this was a few years after Top Gun and Rainman), and if you wrote a screenplay describing the protagonist as “a brash young _______,” Cruise would magically appear before you in a wee puff of smoke. Here, he plays a brash young Navy lawyer named Daniel Kaffee.

Except, Kaffee bypasses “brash” en route to total c*ckdom. A step back: Demi Moore is Navy woman lawyer Joanne “Jo” Galloway (man’s name in a man’s world!), and she wants to represent two enlisted Marines who have been accused of murder (more on that to follow). Her superiors kibosh her request, saying that they “will assign the right man for the job [emphasis mine; lack of nuance Sorkin’s].”

The rationale being, Jo lacks courtroom experience. Jo is a Lieutenant Commander, and according to my military technical advisers (read: former Mossad guys I keep on the payroll to “run errands” involving “violence”), that’s a fairly senior rank. So she’s been in the Navy for at least, say, 8 years. The superiors assign the case to Cruise, who is a Lieutenant Junior Grade, and he exposits that he has been a lawyer for 1 year and a military officer for 9 months.

He must have gotten the job because of his courtroom prowess, right? Negative, ghostrider–he has never handled a trial either. And he’s incredibly disrespectful to superior officers, not just Demi. But he gets put in charge of a murder trial because sure. That doesn’t mean Demi should get the job instead, but presumably there’s a person they could find who is actually qualified and/or not a putz.

Skipping ahead–does Cruise get his comeuppance later? Hells no. Demi, however, turns out to be a f*ckup in court. Women be ineptin’, amirite fellas?

[Additional Fun Fact: Cruise’s lawyer guy character was supposedly based on post-Hubbard Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige. Who, if you believe some of the various allegations against him, is a wee bit of a dangerous sociopath. See Going Clear for details. -Vince]

3. Fascinating Fact 3: Rob Reiner Thinks You Are An Imbecile.

Director Rob Reiner had a solid career going at the time–Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess BrideWhen Harry Met Sally and Misery preceded this. AFGM marks the end of his “watchable” period.

The story takes place primarily in Washington D.C. We are told this specifically at the outset. Lest we forget, he sprinkles in at least six shots of various national monuments, including two (2) of the Iwo Jima statue (which, you have to admit, is a very open-minded symbol for a traditionally homophobic organization).

 

He also puts in a shot of the U.S. flag waving at the very beginning to help out the one guy who thought the movie was set in Belgium. With Sorkin writing, you knew this would be as subtle as a javelin in the trachea, but Reiner deserves some of the blame too.

4. Fascinating Fact 4: The Prosecutors Charge Cruise’s Clients With The Wrong Crime.

OK: the two Marines Cruise represents–Dawson and Downey–are enlisted guys stationed in Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They are accused of murdering Santiago, a fellow enlisted Marine, by stuffing a rag in his mouth and duct taping it in place; he subsequently choked to death on his own blood. We know they actually did this because it was the opening scene. Perhaps I should have mentioned that.

Here are the official charges against the defendants:

1. Murder

2. Conspiracy to Commit Murder

3. Conduct Unbecoming a U.S. Marine

4. Parking on the Dance Floor (I kid).

Prosecutor Bacon (not to be confused with Prosciutto Hamm) alleges that Dawson and Downey soaked the rag in some kind of poison prior to force-feeding it to the victim. [Note: remember one fact ago when I said that Reiner thinks we’re stupid? He somehow thinks he can give the defendants alliterative names because we’re smart enough to remember which one is Dawson and which one is Downey; we are not. Since the former is black and the latter is white, this would have been an excellent time to go with mnemonic names–like, Corporal Black and Private White. Help us out here. And don’t pull that Jack Black/Barry White reversal sh*t either].

So when you’re facing these allegations, your defense is predicated on one of the following theories: a) I didn’t do it; b) I did it but wasn’t a crime; or c) I did it, it was a crime, but I was coerced. As in, a) “I never wore white slacks”; b) “I wore white slacks on Labor Day, not after”; or c) “I wore white slacks in October because there was a gun to my head and this is a bad analogy.” Black and White go with a little from column b) and a little from column c)–we did it, but it wasn’t a crime because we didn’t use poison and we were coerced because an officer ordered us to do it.

There is, of course, option d): nothing. In a criminal case, the defense technically doesn’t have to prove anything; you can just casually point out that the prosecution has no evidence. “Prove that I wore white slacks.” The defendants boned themselves on this earlier by apparently admitting that they were the ones who gag-taped the dead guy; in 1992 there wasn’t much going on in terms of DNA evidence, so it could have been tough to prove. This is why, when you’re arrested, and the police start asking you questions, your only answer is “I’d like to speak to an attorney,” or just “lawyer.” “Would you like some water?” “Lawyer, and Dasani.”

Generally, people do put on a defense. But it wouldn’t be hard to show that the crime here, at worst, was involuntary manslaughter (which, unfortunately, I always read as “man’s laughter.” Another reason I didn’t become a criminal attorney). Prosecutors prefer to charge people with murder, because . . . it sounds cooler? Nobody ever watched “Involuntary Manslaughter, She Wrote.” This mistake has happened in some pretty famous real-life acquittals. With murder, you have to show intent. Here, the big question is, if you were two Marines who wanted to kill a guy (rather than just haze him), would you have done it this way? I mean, if you think the ol’ rag and tape is likely to result in death, you clearly have never attended a Robert Evans seder. And poison is a very unmanly way to murder somebody. Hamlet’s uncle was no Marine.

The superior officers knew for a fact that Black and White didn’t intend for the guy to die, yet they go for a murder conviction anyway. Damn. When the Marines throw you under the bus, they also back up over you a couple of times. And the bus is a tank.

Fascinating Fact 5: Code Red.

The Marines have probably been hazing each other since the day they were organized. In all likelihood, the Corps started as a bunch of random guys who liked hazing but also wanted free uniforms. [For “facts” on this matter, see this piece by Matt Ufford.] However, I can’t find any evidence that this kind of thing was ever called a “code red” before.

Enter Aaron Sorkin.

This is a guy who never met a cool-sounding line he didn’t repeat. There are supercuts of his various projects proving this, and within AFGM alone you’ll hear a lot of lines so nice they say them twice. None more egregiously than the phrase “code red,” which is used more than “Jack” and “Rose” are said in Titanic, combined.

Fact 5(a): if you start AFGM and do a shot every time somebody says “code red,” you’ll be dead 47 minutes in. I invite commenter Underball, the proverbial gum on the sole of Filmdrunk’s shoe, to disprove Fact 5(a) (you’re a hipster if you don’t). So much does the movie love this concept, and phrase, that nobody bothers to charge the defendants with the much worse crime they’ve committed.

Which brings us to…

Fascinating Fact 6: They Don’t Charge The Defendants With The Much Worse Crime They’ve Committed.

Upon my most recent viewing, it became clear to me that AFGM should have been a period piece. Everybody goes on about how fanatical the Marines in Cuba are, and how dangerous their assignment is and how we need them on walls and so forth. Watching it now, every time somebody mentions Guantanamo you cringe a little. But in 1992, about 10 years before the base housed an infamous terrorist prison, there wasn’t dick going on there. There hadn’t been dick going on there since around the Missile Crisis in 1962. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, it must have been an unnerving place to be stationed–the Bay of Pigs failed, the Cubans had the full power of the USSR behind them–and today it must be morally hazardous, if not physically. But in ’92, there was no Soviet threat, and you’d have to be fairly paranoid to expect a Cuban attack. Sure, patrolling the fence separating the base from Fidel’s Communist Wonderland must have been terrible, but only because the Cubans had all the good stuff on their side–Buena Vista Social Clubs, chicas calientes and tasty sandwiches–whereas the only entertainment options on the base were “Cheers” episodes on VHS and code reds.

So when they keep mentioning, casually, that Dawsney had allegedly opened fire at a Cuban, that would have been the most exciting and dangerous thing an American had done in Cuba since Meyer Lansky left. Why the Marines had let that slide is never made clear. But it seems like it would have made a much bigger news story than a little hazing exuberance.

Fact 7: The Technical Cause Of Death.

Lactic Acidosis.

Fact 8: The Guy Who Could Have Prevented The Death Is Not Charged.

Christopher Guest makes a brief cameo as the Gitmo Base Doctor, reuniting with his director from Spinal Tap and Princess Bride. Spoiler: those are better movies than this. Guest admits on the stand that Santiago had previously shown symptoms that put him at risk of death under strenuous circumstances. He is certain, however, that the cause of death was poison, and his proof is that there was no sign of poison, therefore indicating that Black & White were shrewd enough to use one of many undetectable toxins (I was hoping he would identify it as iocane powder; sadly, no). So, according to the doctor, the lack of evidence is the evidence, because the alternative would be admitting that he knew Santiago maybe shouldn’t have been doing Marine things. Of course, somebody should have figured this out during his enlistment physical or during the notoriously taxing Marine Corps Boot Camp, way before he was made democracy’s last line of defense in Cuba.

Still, not a great doctor. But he’s the most affordable internist in your network, so what can you do.

Fact 9: Demi Redeems Herself A Little By Thinking Up The Winning Strategy.

Jo barely speaks during the trial, and when she does it’s to reiterate an objection to the doctor’s testimony that had already been overruled. This gives Kevin Pollak the chance to berate her, which is good, because he’s the only man in the movie who hadn’t done that yet.

Digression: The fact that her character should have “WELCOME” tattooed on her forehead is not Demi’s fault. The part is horribly written, and she does her darnedest to give Jo some kind of fortitude. More importantly, she looks tremendo. Demi looks great now but she was amazing in the early ’90’s. As inappropriately as every man in this movie treats her, it’s a travesty that none of them actually has his eyes on the prize.

Besides inspiring The Man to greatness, Jo’s biggest contribution is convincing him to put Jack on the stand. This is not, on its face, a good idea. Or, it is, it’s just not a practical one. Yes, getting somebody else to confess in court is a very effective way to exonerate your clients. But it’s like coaching a 1st Grade basketball team and suggesting that they all dunk. You seem like a genius if it works, but it sounds pretty dumb when you say it out loud.

Fortunately…

Fact 10: Jack Is The Worst Witness In The History Of Law.

Oh he’s articulate. Looks good in a uniform. Quotable. Punctual. But think about his situation: he’s testifying in somebody else’s trial. He hasn’t been charged with anything, and there is absolutely no evidence tying him to the victim’s death. He probably had never met the defendants or Santiago, and he wasn’t carrying the duct tape the night of the mansmurder. Cruise et al have been proceeding on the theory that Kiefer ordered Downson to haze Santiago, and Cruise can’t even prove that–proving that Jack ordered Kiefer to give the subsequent order Dawson is pretty much out of the question.

So, how do you walk into a courtroom as a tangential witness and leave in cuffs, your brilliant career in tatters? By f*cking up HUGE. Basically, it’s like you go into the cleaners to drop off your best suit and you walk out with the suit in flames, you’ve lost the clothes you were wearing, it’s cold, and the girl you had a crush on in middle school is there, pointing at your dong and giggling. Jack, who has been cool under fire for decades, who commands the scariest fortress in Westeros and eats 300 Cubans for breakfast in the yard or whatever, gets utterly devastated by a first year lawyer who has never been to trial before. He allows Cruise to goad him into making a lengthy, loud and ill-advised, albeit memorable, confession.

Fine, here it is:

Some pro bono advice: if you’re being questioned by an unfriendly lawyer, the preferred answer to yes/no questions is yes or no. If they ask, did you order the code red, the answer is always no, unless you were at a bar where there’s a drink with that name. And if the lawyer says “I want the truth!”, the only acceptable response is, “Yeah, and I want to dance with somebody who loves me. Do you have a question or can I bail?”

Verdict (court)

Ebony & Ivory are found not guilty of murder or conspiracy to commit murder. Which is fair–even if Jack hadn’t imploded on the stand, the fact that there’s another plausible explanation for the death besides poison (namely, that Santiago was a fragile little snowflake) means that the jury would have reasonable doubt about intent. The code red concept actually works as a defense to the murder charge, because it shows that death was not the intended result. The defendants are, however, convicted of Conduct Unbecoming a Marine, and they each receive a dishonorable discharge (ew). And I’m all, how is what they did unbecoming a Marine? Attending a poetry slam, ordering a Cosmo, maybe even reading–that’s unbecoming a Marine. Pointlessly harming another guy, by contrast, is required to literally “become” a Marine.

Verdict (mine):

You should watch Full Metal Jacket instead. They have much better hazing in that. For court martial movies, check out Breaker Morant (Netflix Instant) or Paths of Glory (Netflix still has DVDs, apparently).

Dismissed!

Twitter: @buttockus

 

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