"We follow orders or people die. It's that simple." - Colonel Nathan R. Jessep
It's hard to believe that it's been almost fifteen years since most of us were first introduced to Aaron Sorkin. A promising young New York playwright in the late 1980s, Sorkin developed a stage play around a legal case his sister was handling for the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. A group of marines were on trial there for a hazing attempt gone sour, and their defense team was arguing that the men had been ordered to participate by a superior officer. The classic soldier's dilemma between personal conscience and the chain of command proved the perfect backbone for a dramatic story, and so A Few Good Men was born, enjoying a successful run on Broadway before being developed into a major motion picture by Castle Rock Entertainment. Originally released on DVD in 1997 on an underwhelming barebones flipper, the film now debuts on Blu-ray in a release that mimics the 2001 "Special Edition" DVD.
"The facts of the case are these: on midnight of September 6th, the accused (Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson and PFC Louden Downey) entered the barracks room of their platoon mate PFC William Santiago. They woke him up, tied his arms and legs with tape, and forced a rag into his throat. A few minutes later, a chemical reaction called lactic acidosis caused his lungs to begin bleeding. He drowned in his own blood and was pronounced dead at 37 minutes past midnight. These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed." Captain Jack Ross's (Kevin Bacon) opening statements for the prosecution set the stage for the court-martial at the center of this film. PFC William Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo) is a below-average marine, struggling to meet the physical expectations for Rifle Security Company Windward at the United States Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After word gets out that he's written a letter to the Naval Investigative Service offering information about a fellow marine's illegal fenceline shooting in exchange for a transfer off the base, two of his platoon mates -- Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Downey (James Marshall) -- proceed to give him a "Code Red", a hazing ritual intended to maintain discipline and order within the chain of command. Tragically, the plan to gag him and shave his head goes horribly wrong, and Santiago dies shortly thereafter.
To defend the two men, a hotshot young litigator named Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is assigned to the case. Lt. Kaffee is the son of a brilliant trial attorney, but his skill at manipulating the law into favorable plea bargains has kept him from acquiring any significant trial experience of his own, and he approaches each case more like a sporting event to be won than a personal relationship with his clients. It's the perfect role for Tom Cruise, an actor who oozes with charisma and is a master of the sarcastic confidence Sorkin's writing demands. His style is contrasted by Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), the Special Counsel for Internal Affairs who initially comes across the case and stays on to assist Kaffee throughout the trial. She is passionate about the two marines as individuals, in awe of the work they do every day, and is convinced of their innocence from the start. While she lacks the social skills Kaffee has for persuading others as well as his detailed mastery of the legal system, she is an expert at research and has a better understanding of the military structure. Moore is serviceable in the role, and it is certainly one of the best performances of her career, but she is still outclassed by the staggering level of talent spread throughout the entire film.
Leading them is Jack Nicholson, who stars opposite Cruise as Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, the man in charge of the base at Guantanamo Bay, and he sinks himself into the part in the way only Jack can. He is arrogant and powerful, and the dangerous isolation of his post affords him the latitude to control operations in his own way without too much interference from the mainland. Although he is the villain of the film and is consumed with his own power, his now famous "You Can't Handle the Truth" testimony speaks to the heart of Sorkin's tale. In order for the military to function effectively, the chain of command must be preserved, and in wartime situations or hazardous posts like Guantanamo Bay, if people start questioning orders, lives can be lost. But what do you do when those orders are immoral? Or illegal? How do you reconcile the consequences of obeying or disobeying that order? Sorkin's script doesn't just tell a compelling courtroom drama, but it raises these legitimate questions and gives balance to both sides of the discussion.
What's remarkable about A Few Good Men, though, is just how effective the storytelling is when so much of the film takes place in the courtroom; and the scenes that don't are mostly procedural legal discussions building up to those courtroom scenes. On stage or on television, this would be less of an issue, but holding the audience's attention for over two hours of procedural courtroom drama in a film is no easy task, and it's a testament to Sorkin's clever writing and Rob Reiner's underappreciated skills as a director that the film never loses its momentum. It also speaks to Tom Cruise's abilities as an actor, finding a way to grab hold of the viewer's interest through scenes that could otherwise become mechanical moments of exposition. He is aided in this effort by an incredible supporting cast, chiefly Kevin Pollack as his assisting counsel and Kevin Bacon as the lead prosecutor, each of whom bringing additional depth to the overall production, particularly some wonderfully comedic moments from Pollack. Filling out the cast is a bevy of talent that is borderline ridiculous: Kiefer Sutherland, Christopher Guest, Noah Wyle, Cuba Gooding Jr., Xander Berkeley, Matt Craven, J.A. Preston, and the unparalleled J.T. Walsh. I don't know how a first time screenwriter gets so many actors of this caliber to perform his words, but the results are fantastic, without a moment of insincerity to be found from any of them.
A Few Good Men appears on Blu-ray in 1080p encoded with MPEG-2 in its theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The additional resolution certainly provides more detail that is apparent mostly in the physical features of the performers, but the difference between this high definition release and its standard definition counterpart isn't as great as one would hope, and I'm not sure how much it warrants an upgrade on this alone. The print itself is largely clean, but I did notice some damage flicker by a couple of times, and I couldn't help feeling that the red tones were pushed a bit too far in a few of the scenes. Most of the time, though, the beautiful cinematography of autumn in D.C. and the oak tones of the courtroom setting look very good.
The primary audio options are English and German in uncompressed PCM 5.1. With such a dialogue driven film, there aren't too many opportunities to utilize the surround channels, but this release does an effective job making use of the few chances it has, notably the opening "action" sequence of the film. Marc Shaiman's wonderful score pipes through cleanly, and there are no issues at all with the presentation of the dialogue. In short, the audio is effective if unremarkable.
Subtitles are provided at almost comical levels: English, English SDH, French, German, Dutch, Hungarian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Icelandic, Korean, Norweigian, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, and Klingon. OK, maybe not the last one.
Bonus features are standard definition with English, Dutch, French, German, and Korean subtitles available for all features, including the commentary.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
All of the bonus features from the "Special Edition" DVD have been ported over. These include the featurettes "Code of Conduct" (34:51) and "From Stage to Screen" (13:45), both cut from the same interview material that looks to have been recorded over a span of many years. The former covers more general topics about the production, while the latter narrows the scope to converting the stage play into a film. I found each of these to be quite interesting, and they provide a good feel for how all the pieces of the puzzle were put together to form such a strong final product. Director Rob Reiner's comments about Sorkin and the film are particularly engrossing, which leads one to get excited about his commentary. Don't.
The director's commentary is surprisingly lifeless, with large periods of time where Reiner has nothing to say. When he does speak up, many of his comments about the choices they made behind the scenes are interesting, but it's frustrating to see how much thought and insight he has in the featurettes and really not get much of that here.
A Few Good Men remains strong as one of the more compelling and thought provoking courtroom dramas. Sorkin's dialogue exhibits his unique style of witty humor, and Reiner's direction enhances a piece that could seem overly talky in lesser hands. With superb performances from Cruise and Nicholson and a uniformly excellent supporting cast, the story is as entertaining and relevant as it was fifteen years ago, and I enjoyed seeing it again for the first time in quite a while. While the video presentation is a step up simply due to the upgrade in technology, and most of the film looks really good, I don't know how much the video alone is worth rushing out and purchasing this latest version, so I'm going to simply mark this as Recommended.
N.B.: Images in this review exist only to look pretty and are in no way representative of the quality of the high definition transfer