Friday Links: A Few Good Men Edition

As you know, each Friday, we  share some links to other sites and articles of interest.  Keeping with this week’s theme – the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the release of A Few Good Men – we’ve collected some links related to the film.

Here’s an interesting piece from The New York Times, published last year, noting that at least four former military lawyers have claimed to be the lawyer upon which the A Few Good Men‘s protagonist is based. How about that? It wasn’t one of us, that’s for certain.

Did you know that in 2008 the ABA Journal named A Few Good Men Number 14 on its list of Top 25 Greatest Legal Movies?

In an article, also from 2008, M. J. Tocci explains that A Few Good Men teaches us that “jurors give their own meaning to the different ways that men and women express themselves.”

Here is the official blog of the U.S. Navy JAG Corps.

Check out Roger Ebert’s original review of A Few Good Men, originally published on December 11, 1992. Interestingly, Ebert feels that the film spoils the climactic “You can’t handle the truth scene” by featuring a scene in which Cruise’s character previews the strategy.  Here’s what Ebert had to say on that point: “What happens is that the movie brings us to the brink of a courtroom breakthrough, and then we get the scene that undermines everything, as Cruise explains to his friends what he hopes to do, how he hopes to do it, and how he thinks it will work. When Nicholson’s big courtroom scene develops, we realize with sinking heart that it is following the movie’s scenario. That robs us of pleasure two ways: (1) We are not allowed the pleasure of discovering Cruise’s strategy for ourselves, and (2) Nicholson’s behavior seems scripted and inevitable, and is robbed of shock value.”

If you enjoyed our coverage of the twentieth anniversary of A Few Good Men, go back and check out our articles commemorating the twentieth anniversaries of My Cousin Vinny and Class Action!

Abnormal Interviews: Actor James Marshall of “A Few Good Men”

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our week-long tribute to A Few Good Men with an interview with James Marshall, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Rob Green earlier this year. In the film, Marshall’s character, Pfc. Louden Downey, was one of the accused Marines defended by Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. Marshall’s credits include roles in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Gladiator, and “China Beach.” Our interview with Marshall, which features his memories of the filming and set and observations on his acting career, is as follows:

ABNORMAL USE:  It’s kind of hard to believe it’s been 20 years since that movie came out.  It kind of seems like it was almost just yesterday.  How has it been for you, I mean, does it feel like it’s been 20 years?

JAMES MARSHALL:  No.  Not at all.  One of the funny things about it is A Few Good Men seems to be playing almost every night, it’s not like weekly, like every other day, it was on some channel. To me, it was such a unique part of my life.  That’s why when I look at some of the guys, everybody is starting to look a little older, and I think, wait a minute, that can’t be happening, we just did that.  It was such a great opportunity to be a part of something that cool and that big.

AU:  That was such a big name cast that you guys had in that movie.  How was it filming a movie with all those big names, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon?

JM:  It was literally – at first that kind of feeling like maybe skydiving feeling.  At first, I was really, really scared. Even going to the set for the first time for the first rehearsal.  I genuinely had a feeling of like, “Whoa.”  Every day, it was like very surrealistic, very dreamlike in a really good way.  It was just so cool.  There were so many people walking around, and you’ve got to understand, these people who are that big have friends.  So, they had their big movie star friends visiting the set.  There were some I didn’t get to know, but the ones that I dealt with mainly were Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak.  I only spoke to Jack a couple of times, but I just watched how he dealt with peopl,e and he was a very good person to look at for that kind of thing.  As big of a star as he is, from the extras to just anybody, if somebody asked him a question, he just was right there looking them in the eyes and answering.  It was very cool.

AU:  Your role in the movie, you played Pfc. Louden Downey, who was a young Marine wrongfully accused of murder, what sort of background research or what did you do to prepare for that particular role of playing a Marine?

JM:  Well, the Marine stuff, that initially I had worked on a military movie called Cadence that was directed by Martin Sheen that  starred Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen, and Larry Fishburne.  It was shot in Canada, and we actually had to shoot it twice.  So, I actually went through real two boot camps to prepare for that movie, which was pretty much the kind of thing that you don’t forget.  Yeah, I had had it pounded in for many months before the shoot of Cadence.   I was a little rusty by the time A Few Good Men came around, but it came back pretty quickly. Somebody on the set actually came up to me, I think it was the first day, and said, “You’ve got to get these guys, they’re marching’s horrible. ” And I go, “You guys need to do this and that to march properly.”

RG:  Anything else?

JM:  I also got to see A Few Good Men on Broadway when I was in New York doing promotions for “Twin Peaks.”  This was way before A Few Good Men was thought of as a movie, they were probably just talking about it.  And I got to see the Broadway show, they took me to the show and stuff.  So, seeing the other guys’ performance, what he did with Downey and stuff, really helped me to, because on stage it’s much bigger, broader, so it helped me to understand how his character was.  Because on film, you tend to downplay things.  And had I not seen what they did on stage, I may have downplayed it too much.  It gave me a good background emotionally where the characters were.

RG:  Now, you had so many big names in the film, but the actor you shot the majority of your scenes with, Wolfgang Bodison, that was his first role wasn’t it?

JM:  Yeah.  He’d never – he wasn’t an actor.  He was Rob Reiner’s assistant, actually, and I think Rob just started looking around because he was having trouble finding the right person for the part, and Rob thought Wolfgang just looked perfect for the part. So, I think Rob just read him and made sure he could do it, and yeah, that was that.  He was a good guy, too.

RG:  A Few Good Men is considered to be one of the best legal movies and, in fact, the American Bar Association named it number 14 on the list of 25 greatest legal movies of all time.  What do you think makes the movie resonate so well with so many people, whether lawyers or not, after all these years?

JM:  There’s all-star casts with many movies, and they just come and go sometimes. I mean, the script is phenomenal, and there was a certain something in that script that was very special. Even when I saw it on stage, that time in New York, there was something about it that vibrated.  . . . [S]omething about it had a life of its own.  I’ve gotta hand it to Rob Reiner. When you have Rob Reiner come on, who dealt with everything so responsibly, he had the emotion in everything he did.  He is also able to humanize all of the characters. He dimensionally showed you through his direction of each character, what they’re doing when they’re not in uniform, and what they’re doing off the job.  Then, he was willing to go to a place that was really, really almost emotionally invested in the character by giving a sense of vulnerability of each character.  Like Nicholson’s character’s vulnerability was his arrogance, you know what I mean?  I mean, the movie’s just so dynamic, and it moves so well, without being self-conscious and artificial, has this great old school Hollywood movie feel to it, which makes you feel good about.  There’s something so redeeming, and it’s the fact that they – it just feels good to be human for a minute, and that’s really what, that’s really to me what theater and Hollywood is about ultimately.  It makes you interested in life, inspired about life, and to feel good about being human.  And most movies don’t do that. It’s either a thrill ride, or whatever, or an attempt at something like A Few Good Men, and usually it falls short.  No, you know what it was, it was a compilation of incredibly talented people coming together with a really, really good story.

AU:  Do you have a particular scene or a particular moment from the movie that kinda stands out to you that you particularly look back on with and go “Wow, that was just amazing”?

JM:   There’s probably a couple of parts.  There’s the final scene with the classic build-up of Jack Nicholson’s character [“You can’t handle the truth!”] and the fireworks . . . between Cruise and Kevin Bacon with Demi Moore and Nicholson, and you just feel their – it’s like where it’s going to go, how is this going to happen and it’s happening so effortlessly and quickly, and then – that’s something that everybody remembers. But as far as other stuff, for me, when I see some of the scenes, some of the scenes make me remember what we were doing at the time, that kind of thing.  And it’s like when I look at scenes at the table in the courtroom, sometimes with Demi, Tom, and Wolfgang, we’d be sitting there for hours because of other thingsoff camera.  And then we’d also have Kevin Pollak there.  He’s a comedian.  Between takes, Kevin would be making jokes, and it was just tremendously funny stuff coming from him. Then, Demi would stick something in, and Kevin would crack up. And Rob Reiner would come over and hear it and start laughing.  It’s little moments like that stand out.  But yeah, I don’t remember a lot of things from most movie shoots, but A Few Good Men, I remember nearly every day.  It was so dynamic.  It was just . . .  it was overwhelming.

AU:  One of the interesting aspects of the movie that I found as a former JAG officer was the interplay or tension for most of the movie between Kaffee and Dawson and Downey with, you have Kaffee’s kind of laid back lawyerly personality and then you have the very militaristic Dawson and Downey – do you know how that aspect of the movie came to be?  Was it just something that Aaron Sorkin wrote in, was it something that Rob Reiner developed?  Do you know where that came from?

JM:  Actually I think those were the dynamics of the play, so I think a lot of that was Aaron’s stuff that was in there already.  I’m pretty sure, yeah.  It was, everybody was pretty well defined from the play and from the initial script.

AU:  Do you think you get recognized most for your role in “Twin Peaks” or A Few Good Men?

JM:  A Few Good Men.

RG:  Definitely?

JM:  Yeah, because “Twin Peaks,” although it had a bit of a cult following, I think everybody has seen A Few Good Men. And like I said, A Few Good Men is on television a lot.  I also tend to look more like the A Few Good Men character.  On “Twin Peaks,” I had dark black hair, blah, blah, blah.  And the role was an ensemble cast.  It was a whole different thing.  But yeah, I’d say definitely A Few Good Men.

A Few Good Men: A Former JAG Officer’s Perspective

I spent over four years as an Active Duty Judge Advocate with the United States Air Force prior to transitioning into civil practice.  As with most JAGs, A Few Good Men holds a special place in my heart.  On the whole, the movie is fairly accurate  from a JAG perspective but it does go astray on a couple big-ticket items.

Let’s start with the accuracies.  I suspect that they hired a former JAG as a consultant to assist them in the script.  They get a lot of the little things right.  For instance:

—     Demi Moore’s character calls for an “802 conference” after she strenuously objects to admission of expert testimony (for a second time).  That’s military lawyer speak for a conference with the judge outside the presence of the jurors.

—     They get the two accused Marines to trial very quickly.  Although I don’t think the movie ever gives an actual time line, it seems like just a few months from the crime to the trial.  That type of speed is actually something upon which the Military Justice Systems places a premium.  In fact, when a Military Member is placed in pre-trial confinement, Rule 707 of the Rules for Courts Martial requires that person be brought to trial within 120 days.

—     The tension between Cruise’s laid-back character, Lt. Kaffee, and the two Marines on trial.  JAGs are military officers and expected to act that way, if for no other reason than to retain the respect of other military members.  In real life, if a JAG acted as aloof as Lt Kaffee, he’d get an earful from many different angles.

—     The Marine Military judge is not wearing a traditional robe during the trial. That’s actually correct for a Marine.  Marine and Navy judges don’t don the robe (although Air Force and Army judges do).

So what did they get wrong? First, you know how Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Kaffee, is portrayed as a wet behind the ears defense attorney who’s never seen the inside of a courtroom? Well, in real life, the military would never appoint a person with no trial experience to be a defense counsel.  Nearly all defense counsel in the Military start out in the prosecutor’s office for a couple of years where they earn plenty of trial experience.  A JAG usually is only considered for a defense counsel position after he has gotten a number of trials under his or her belt.  The rationale is that the military wants to make sure that if any mistakes are being made (and hopefully they aren’t), those mistakes don’t end up putting an innocent person in jail.  Moreover, Lt. Kaffee certainly wouldn’t have been lead counsel.  In the serious criminal cases, there is a Senior Defense Counsel appointed to take the lead, and the younger defense counsel sits second chair.

Second, speaking of inexperience, do you remember when Lt. Kaffee alludes to his suspicion that his superiors put him on the case because military higher-ups didn’t want the case going to trial?  Well, in real life, defense counsel fall under a separate chain of command that runs straight up to the 3-Star General in charge of the JAG Corps.  Non-JAG military officers have no authority to directly influence defense counsel.  The Military recognizes that defense counsel need to be free from undue influence and the perception of undue influence.

Finally, although the two accused Marines have the main charges against them dismissed, they are still found guilty of “Conduct Unbecoming A Marine” and are discharged from the military.  The only problem? No such crime exists under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  Article 133 of the UCMJ makes “conduct unbecoming an officer” a crime.  But the two accused Marines were enlisted, rather than officers, and couldn’t have been convicted under Article 133.  Whoops.

In spite of these few in accuracies, the movie is still near and dear to me.   Who doesn’t appreciate a movie that makes a mostly boring career exciting?  I’m sure mall cops feel the same way about Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

A Few Good Men: Can You Handle The Truth?

As a part of our coverage of the twentieth anniversary of the release of A Few Good Men, we must dedicate one post to the film’s classic, and most memorable, scene. As you no doubt recall, Jack Nicholson’s character, Col. Nathan Jessup, furiously shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!”  It’s the film’s most famous line from its most famous scene.  Nearly everyone, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, know the line.  Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Daniel Kaffee, masterfully extracts that statement and subsequent admission of guilt from Col. Jessup.  Or did he?  Actually, from a trial advocacy perspective, Kaffee’s gambit is a terrible bit of strategic lawyering.

By way of refresher, the scene arrives during the end of the trial.  Kaffee’s two Marine defendants are on trial for the death of a fellow Marine, who died after they stuffed a rag down his throat as a part of a “code red” hazing.  However, the Marine defendants claim that they were just following orders from their superiors.  As the trial progresses, things are not looking good for Kaffee and his clients.  So Kaffee decides to go for the home run and calls Col Jessup to the stand.  The goal: goad Jessup into admitting that he ordered the code red.

When Kaffee calls Jessup to the stand, he’s armed with little ammunition.  It’s a hail mary gambit.  The witness is full bird colonel, a position which is as credible as they come to a court-martial jury.  There are no prior statements of Jessup that he ordered a “code red,” s no potential impeachment material.  There’s little, if any, extrinsic evidence casting doubt on Jessup’s testimony.  So, what was Kaffee’s brilliant plan?  To call him a liar and scream “I want the truth?”

Seriously, that was his plan.

Would such an approach ever work in an actual courtroom? Imagine this:

Defendant’s Attorney: Ms. Smith, isn’t it true that my client was traveling only 1 mile per hour when his vehicle struck you, you told him afterwards that you were fine, you had no injuries, and your new complaints of injury are completely fabricated?

Witness:  No, that’s not true.

Defendant’s Attorney:  I want the truth!

Witness:  I’ve already told the truth.  Your client slammed into me, and I’ve had serious back pain ever since.

Defendant’s Attorney:  I want the truth!

Plaintiff’s Attorney: Objection asked and answered.

Judge:  Sustained. Move along, counselor.

If it wouldn’t work on your classic fender bender Plaintiff, we doubt it would work on an experienced field grade military officer.  Quite frankly, Kaffee’s strategy is pretty dumb.  But hey, it’s Hollywood, and it made for some great cinematic drama.

20th Anniversary: “A Few Good Men” (1992)

Twenty years ago tomorrow, on December 11, 1992, the popular legal drama A Few Good Men saw its release in theaters. Written by Aaron Sorkin (and based on his play), and directed by Rob Reiner, the film has become ingrained in our culture, spawning memorable lines (“You can’t handle the truth”) and scenes (“How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?”).  Further, the film assembled a host of Hollywood megastars (Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore), all of whom were super popular at the time. As a courtroom film, it has a special place in the hearts and minds of lawyers. We here at Abnormal Use have always been fans of this movie, so we decided to commemorate its twentieth anniversary with a full week’s worth of coverage.  As you may recall, in March, we did something very similar with My Cousin Vinny to celebrate its twentieth anniversary.  So, for this film, we’ve also gone all out. This week, we’ll be posting  our own thoughts and memories of the film, an interview with one of the actors, and other related content.

We are excited about this project and offer the following preview of what to expect this week:

Tuesday, December 11

Can You Handle The Truth?” – Our writer Rob Green analyzes the most famous scene in the film and wonders if Tom Cruise’s character actually employed good legal strategy.

Wednesday, December 12

A Few Good Men: A Former JAG Officer’s Perspective” – A former JAG officer, Rob Green takes a look at the film to determine how accurately it depicted the military justice system.  Spoiler alert: He finds that the filmmakers got some things right, and some things wrong.

Thursday, December 13

Abnormal Interviews: Actor James Marshall” – We were fortunate enough to score an interview with James Marshall, the actor who played Pfc. Louden Downey, one of the defendants on trial.  Marshall shares his memories of the filming experience and working with Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and of course, Jack Nicholson.

Friday, December 14

“Friday Links: A Few Good Men Edition” – We’ve cobbled together some interesting links to commentary on the film and its place in history.

We hope you enjoy our anniversary celebration. As the days proceed, we will activate the links to this content above.