What we remember about “A Few Good Men” is, of course, not the plot, or the fact that half of the working actors of the ’90s appeared in it (Cuba Gooding Jr., Noah Wyle, a fetal Josh Malina, Christopher Guest). It’s Jack Nicholson’s much-pilloried “You can’t handle the truth!” Certainly nobody remembers that, though it’s mightily flawed, “A Few Good Men” is also underrated, a solidly built legal thriller—or that Tom Cruise gives one of his more likable and relatable performances in it.
Cruise portrays Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a Navy JAG lawyer laboring in the shadow of his legendary attorney general father. Kaffee is a classic Cruise character, a finger-gun-pointing wiseacre forced to forge a new maturity in the fires of a situation much larger than himself. While Kaffee must gather his huevos to challenge unwritten military rules about honor, as well as the intimidating cigar-chomper Col. Jessup (Nicholson), Cruise is going mano a mano with an acting icon while at the same time trying to do naturalistic justice to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue.
It’s harder even than it sounds—just ask Demi Moore, who at the end of one vintage-Sorkin aria-logue is left literally out of breath—but Cruise pulls it off. More accurately, Cruise bothers pulling it off, when he could have coasted through the role on movie-star autopilot, alternating his own patented intense glares and toothy grins in an approximation of actual acting. I wouldn’t have blamed him: Kaffee as written is all over the place.
Much is made of Kaffee’s Ivy League background and lack of combat experience, for instance. That’s a legitimate way of contrasting Kaffee and the battle-hardened Jessup, but the script confuses “has never seen combat” with “is completely unfamiliar with military protocols despite having completed basic training, spent several more years in the Navy, and presumably having seen the same war movies as the rest of us.” Sometimes Kaffee flouts basic rank conventions; sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes Kaffee knows armed-forces argot; sometimes he doesn’t. It depends on what the script needs Kaffee to be—rebel in over his head; dutiful officer exposing conduct unbecoming—or what emotional climax it’s retailing. Cruise smoothes over these inconsistencies so Kaffee doesn’t seem, well, like a self-destructive bonehead.
On top of that, when Kaffee isn’t doing things like not knowing what “engaged” means in a military context, he’s self-satisfied, thinks he’s smarter than everyone else in the room and makes no effort to hide the fact, and teases a woman for liking him That Way. If you watched Sorkin’s magnum television opus, “The West Wing,” that sounds awfully familiar; if you didn’t, Kaffee is the naval prototype for White House staffer Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford)…and I enjoyed that show, but I’m afraid that isn’t a compliment. Whitford also did a fantastic job keeping a frequently arrogant and ungracious jackass on the right side of charming, but it’s a tall order.
How does Cruise fill it? He goes to undignified places: tripping over a chair at the end of a rant that’s supposed to be kind of frightening; screeching awkwardly at opposing counsel’s (Kevin Bacon) retreating back that he’s a “lousy fucking softball player”; doing a Nicholson imitation whose poor quality is endearing. And he lets us see Kaffee thinking. Cruise’s best moment is a split second after Kaffee gets Jessup to admit he’s to blame for the death in question; “holy crap, I can’t believe I got him to go there” crosses Cruise’s face like ripples on water. It’s a quiet, deft moment after 15 solid minutes of capital-A Acting to the cheap seats. Well done, sailor.
Sarah D. Bunting is the east coast editor at Previously.TV and the head rodeo clown at TomatoNation.com. She’s contributed to Seventeen, Glamour, Sports On Earth, New York Magazine, Slate, and Salon, among others.