What do you wanna discuss now? My favorite color? - Col. Jessop, A Few Good Men (1992)
Last night I had the joy of catching two of my all time favourite Tom Cruise films haphazardly placed next to each other on different channels - The Edge of Tomorrow and A Few Good Men. While both boasted of terrific performances, far apart from Tom Cruise alone, these two films had one other thing in common - both were phenomenally well written, with the latter edging the former (pun unintended). That brings us neatly into the objective behind this post - a celebration of the importance and sheer joy that accompanies watching a film that is well written. First, for those who need a refresher on A Few Good Men, here's the trailer, though word to the wise, I strongly suggest watching the film if you haven't before you go ahead from this paragraph or watch the trailer.
Often called an old-fashioned court drama, Rob Reiner's masterpiece stands the test of time because it is so much more. Written by perennial writing superstar Aaron Sorkin, A Few Good Men is the story of a lawyer who risks his career and bets on pure emotions to ensure justice is served. As fantastical as the notion that betting on emotions can be used to win in court sounds, the execution of the idea is not met with any scrutiny when the moment actually arrives. Why? The simple phenomenon of character building. By establishing characters that are deep and well drawn out, never through exposition but through presentation and exploration, we are made to empathize with the characters. In the end any actions they take are not out of the blue or confusing because we know that it is a reaction to situations that is completely within their nature.
The film wastes no time in setting the mood. Just look at the imagery (above) used as the titles are displayed - a standard (I imagine) drill conducted by a branch of the army. We are immediately told, subliminally, that this is going to be a film about army traditions and their strict codes of conduct. This interjection is vastly important - it is after all one such tradition that causes Pvt. Santiago to lose his life. In fact peppered all across the films are sequences like this one, which emphasizes the role traditions and rules and adherence to orders plays in the army and in its view, keeping the nation they protect safe. I could go on and on about the visuals but this post is about the writing, and what always stands out for me in this film are the dialogues and their role in character development. So much so that the actual amount of exposition in the film is almost abysmal, Sorkin heavily relaying on stray comments and outright behavioural performances from his characters instead.
The best example of this is, of course, the infamous antagonist of the film - Col. Jessep. An important arc in the film, one that is used to obtain the intense climax, is the size of the ego Col. Jessep is blessed/cursed with. It is a blessing, he has clearly done well for himself, even being promoted above a fellow academy graduate:
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, well, I don't give a shit. We're in the business of saving lives, Lieutenant Colonel Markinson. Don't ever question my orders in front of another officer. -Col. Jessop
Even the fact that he has risen up due to his brashness is conveyed through dialogue and notice, there is almost no exposition here. If a piece of work is written well enough, exposition becomes almost unnecessary. The only time exposition should be used is if there is no other way of conveying character traits (eg. The Usual Suspects). The line above serves another purpose though. It shines a light on one of the most important questions of the film - is Col. Jessep motivated by his need to protect his nation by following protocol to the word or just by his ego?
In the last few lines of the film he talks a big game about honour and loyalty and a host of other things that are necessary to protect the nation. Fundamentally though, even he knows its all bullshit. He did not become a marine because he wanted to become a guardian of America, he became a marine because he wanted, he craved, respect. It forms the foundation of his character. This is best displayed by this line in the film:
There is nothing on this earth sexier, believe me, gentlemen, than a woman you have to salute in the morning. -Col. Jessep
He then goes on to make a crude remark about receiving sexual favours from a superior officer. Does that sound like a man who really cares about rank or adherence to a code? No. This conveniently brings us to one of the greatest truths in the film - he does not go after Santiago because he doesn't have what it takes to succeed in the marines, he goes after Santiago because he had the audacity to go over his head. Remember, Santiago lands himself in this mess in the first place because he writes countless letters to Jessep's superiors, requesting for transfer and outright complaining about his plights at Gitmo. This disregard for the authority above him (or disobedient ones below, for that matter) is also seen in the penultimate scene before the climax:
Col. Jessep: I would appreciate it if he would address me as "Colonel" or "Sir." I believe I've earned it.
Judge Randolph: Defense counsel will address the witness as "Colonel" or "Sir."
Col. Jessep: [to Judge] I don't know what the hell kind of unit you're running here.
Judge Randolph: And the witness will address this court as "Judge" or "Your Honor." I'm quite certain I've earned it. Take your seat, Colonel.
Clearly, therefore, it is his ego that drives him.
As I mentioned above, it his ego that ultimately creates his downfall as well. Despite being instrumental in the murder of a young man, he does not experience guilt or sorrow. He does not experience it because it is not present - his ego is so strong that it in his heart he well and truly believes that whatever he does is justified. Some may have complaints with the fact that Tom Cruise's character decides to use to conceivably cast a die and hope that on provocation, his ego would let out the startling fact that Jessep felt he was justified in taking those actions, and in doing so admitting that the actions were taken in the first place. Don't get it wrong, the justification came before the admission; if you have doubts check out the scene (any excuse to watch it again really):
Good films use dialogues to build characters in the minds of the audience so that the viewers are able to accept them as they are, antagonist or protagonist. It's easy to make us relate to a protagonist, he is by definition the good guy. The antagonist is a whole other beast. Few films have been able to succeed without memorable antagonists, many have even succeeded in making the antagonist the focus instead of the protagonist. TV shows are able to do it successfully due to the time on their hand but that does not mean movies with just an hour, two tops should shy away from it. The objective isn't to get the audience to root for the antagonist, remember, it is to understand him. It is to, albeit reluctantly, give in to the idea that should they be in the same positions the antagonist finds himself in, they would react the same way. The goal is to inspire empathy, not sympathy. In this inspiration lies good writing.
If you are planning to become a writer of any kind - literature, screen or any other format, A Few Good Men and indeed most Sorkin films serve as masterclasses.