05 December 2007

Thoughts on A Few Good Men

After seeing the play A Few Good Men so long ago, as it was interpreted by my peers in high school—it suited our all-male student body well—I finally managed to see the film that was based on that play and popularized it. The occasion was an extended quotation of Colonel Nathan Jessep's extended diatribe by a fellow seminarian, marvellously rendered in true Nicholson style. It was a stirring reminder of the play I'd seen over a decade ago, refreshing old memories of the same speech that had managed to be stirring even in the hands of a high school performer, to his credit.

I have never seen Nicholson in a movie where I was not captivated by his character. For me, as an actor he can do no wrong; whatever part he plays, I am transfixed. He fills the frame to the exclusion of all other characters. At every cut of the camera I await the inevitable barbs of caustic, raspy disdain, my delight increasing with each as they come. It is vanity, pure vanity, but he’s just so good at it…

Apart from Nicholson, I was disappointed in the film for a couple of reasons. At the risk of overanalyzing a 90s courtroom drama, and of saying many things that have been repeated many times over, there are a few things worth putting out there about how I experienced it. The most significant is that I didn’t side with the characters I was supposed to. Perhaps my undue attachment to the Colonel blinded me to the most central flaws of the “code” that was skewered so mercilessly, but I don’t think so. In the end I found the Marine rhetoric compelling, and when Kaffrey slaps the “sonofabitch” across his face it was totally unsatisfying—in part because it's never appealing to grind the loser under your heel, but mostly because what the Colonel says is in some sense true. Moreover, there is no development in Kaffrey’s character. There is no deeper awareness of the human, moral dimension of his work; his decision to go ahead and risk baiting Jessep to confess to ordering the Code Red is not driven by any desire to lay himself down in service of the truth or even in service to the men who depend on him for their legal defense. In the end, it is pragmatism and the conviction that he can succeed, nothing more. Risks were calculated and the numbers that fell against him were not unsurmountable. This is not a character that has matured in any way beyond a discovery of a proficiency of which he was not aware before and that he was afraid might not exist; we first meet him in a position that enabled him to "stay out of the courtroom" and thereby stick to what was reliable and safe. All that his changed is that he is more willing to be bold.

The cheesy synthesizer music that resolved into a nice major chord as soon as Kaffrey announces he will be putting Jessep on the stand after an off-screen soul-search for the “strength within” didn’t help, either. These sorts of moments were repeatedly being pushed aside by a bad soundtrack. This is what we call ham-fisted. I was naïve to expect more, but as a certain FT recently said, it’s nice to be treated like you’re smart enough not to be told outright what is going on in a story. And good grief, were 80s and 90s soundtracks really that bad? Who put up with this stuff? Sic transit gloria...

What the film did achieve was the tension between the two worlds of the abstract, legal realm and the situations in which the decisions made on high must be carried out. It is the age-old clash between the politician and the soldier (or, as Plato put it, between the ruler and the guardian); the worldview of each is so conditioned by its goals that the two constantly run up against one another. It just so happens that in this particular story the setting of the action is in the abstract world of the law, and not in the concrete setting the laws are meant to govern; it should come as no surprise that the lawyer comes out on top. He does, and that’s probably the way it should be. But the fact is, there is such a thing as a good Marine, and there is such a thing as a good lawyer, or manager, or lawmaker, and these are very different things. The soldier does what he must do and does it as best he can; regardless of what he is asked to do, there is a sort of excellence that can be achieved proper to himself. Likewise for the lawyer. Put a soldier in a courtroom and the lawyer will dance all over him; put a lawyer on the front and he will have his own lessons to learn. Take a soldier out of the field and subject his actions to rigorous scrutiny and there will be some glaring inconsistencies that, when articulated, will be as bewildering for the soldier as they are outrageous to the lawyer. This is a clash of worlds, and it is unavoidable. Wars will never be waged in orderly fashion.

That being said, I don’t want to give the impression the perjury of military officers should be condoned; the “bad guys” did wrong and they deserved to be punished. However, it was clear that the bad guys stood for something much more than military excellence run amok. Though the Marines were acquitted of their crimes, the source of meaning for their lives had been ripped out from beneath them, ostensibly to their benefit. The accidental death of a Marine resulting from a straightforward but unregulated act of peer correction was an unfortunate consequence of their devotion to a code of conduct, but that code informed and structured the lives of those young men in a way they could not do themselves. The conclusion of the film betrayed an antipathy for such communal structures of meaning and purpose, likening it to the flashy marches and rifle drills that began the film—eye-catching and impressive, but ultimately just the rehearsed and well-executed maneuvers of men required to concentrate only on not falling out of line with the soldier on either side in the hopes of creating a corporate body that acts in concert to the ultimate detriment of its members. This antipathy is just the sort of reaction a highly individualized perspective would have to such a structure, and this is the prevailing wisdom of our world today.

It was this repugnance to communal structures that fired my dislike for the film overall. Would I watch it again? I probably will, one day. It will take a few more viewings to get a good handle on Nicholson’s speech.

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