Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Few Good Men -- honor, courage and truth

Director: Rob Reiner, 1992.

A Few Good Men opens with a choreographed sequence showing a Marine drill team in full dress uniform. Twirling rifles like batons, their synchronized moves underscore their training. More than this, it shows them as a unit, a machine with one goal: to bring honor to the Marine Corps. Honor is one of the themes of this Oscar-nominated drama.

When a Marine Private dies at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, two fellow marines are accused of murder. To provide defense in their courtmartial, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is assigned as lead counsel. His approach is to plea bargain, regardless of right or wrong, innocence or guilt. He does not want a trial. His two co-counsels represent two sides to the same coin. Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) sees clear guilt in their two defendants and pushes the plea, while Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) smells a rat and wants to investigate more fully. Naive as a lawyer, she still believes in fairness and truth, and wants to give the two marines the best defense possible, not a simple plea bargain.

When the three lawyers go visit Gitmo to see the crime scene for themselves, they come face to face with their adversary, Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson). Jessop is a career marine with delusions of grandeur. He, too, has two sidekicks who act as foils to his character and values. The use of foils in this movie has been explored by lawyer Ryan Blue, focusing on the two sub-characters on each side of the legal divide. Reiner uses them effectively to move the narrative to its conclusion.

Galloway, underwhelmed by Kaffee's investigation in Cuba and disappointed by his lack of passion, regales him for his lack of courage and conviction. She sees the lack of fairness in the inevitable plea bargain that Kaffee desires, for his own gain not theirs. But it is she who finally wakes him up to the truth.

Fairness is never really at the center of a legal trial. Justice will be done, but not necessarily resulting in fairness. The law does not always ensure that the guilty are pubished and the innocent walk free. As the movie moves toward a climax in the courtroom, Kaffee points out, "This is a sales pitch. It's not going to be won by the law, it's going to be won by the lawyers." It's all a game of posturing, showmanship and storytelling. The lawyers, him included, are paid to create a story that is believable by the jury. With the facts as the bones of its skeleton, their words create the flesh to hang on these bones. The side with the most believable story usually wins. Is this fair? Perhaps, perhaps not. It simply is. The legal system is more concerned with prosecutions and acquittals than with justice.

Getting back to honor and the Marine Corps, A Few Good Men uses the Marine Corps Code of Honor as a thread that keeps the story bound in place. The three core values of this code are commitment, courage and honor. One Marine says of the deceased, "he is dead because he had no honor." Kaffee tells one of the defendants, "You don't need a patch on your arm to have honor." Honor is clearly central to the plot.

This begs the questions, what is honor and how do we get it? Honor involves basic respect: for self, for others, for the unit, for the team. More than this, it connotes honesty and integrity. Honor comes to a person in many ways, through fame, success, distinction in a specific field. But all require the person to be worthy of honor, and this means doing right, maintaining a high standard of moral and ethical behavior. In short, having a high character. This is totally consistent with the biblical commands to live an upright life (Prov. 16:17), walking in the path of right and avoiding sin (Psa. 1:1-3). We attain honor by being honorable. Most Marines earn this through their skill, their strength, and their devotion to duty and to their code.

The code required unquestioning commitment and obedience to orders. That becomes the crux of the legal matter. When questioned on the stand, Lt. Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), one of Jessop's officers, says: "I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant, the Marine Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I am aware of are my commanding office Colonel Nathan R. Jessup and the Lord our God." But what happens when they conflict?

Kendrick seems to put Jessup on a par with Jesus. But when the laws of man run counter to the laws of God, God must win. In the early days of the church, the Apostles faced a similar situation, when their authority, the Jewish Sanhedrin, commanded them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (Ac. 4:18). But rather than submitting to the will of these leaders, they obeyed the will of God. Yet, they did so knowingly and faced the painful consequences of this civil disobedience (Ac 5:40). While Kendrick obeyed Jessup, in like circumstances Christians must obey Jesus. As Peter said, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Ac 5:29)

What makes A Few Good Men so good is its dramatic climax. Reiner (The Princess Bride, The Bucket List) pits Cruise against Nicholson in its pivotal scene. The success of Kaffee's defense (and the success of Reiner's film) stands on this powerful interchange. Though Cruise has somewhat cruised through the film playing a typical Cruise character (think Maverick in Top Gun), he rises to the occasion for this confrontation which leads to the notorious declaration, "You can't handle the truth!"

Truth is the final and climactic theme of the film. Ryan Blue, in his blog article, points out that Kaffee's "two foils are used to personify Kaffee's dilemma: will he have the courage to pursue the truth or not?" Truth is powerful. Jesus, in his defense in front of Pilate, the judge who could save his life, said: "In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me" (Jn. 18:37). Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said, "The truth will set you free" (Jn. 8:32). What is that truth? Jesus is that very truth: "I am the way, the life and the truth" (Jn. 14:6).

Will we be like Kaffee? Will we have the courage to pursue the truth? Will we have the courage to accept the truth and do what is right? Jesus is looking for a few good men!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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