Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men first appeared as a play in 1989, three years before it would be adapted into a feature film from a major studio. Removing All Doubt and the one-act Hidden in This Picture, Sorkin’s first plays, would boost his reputation in the New York theatre scene prior to any associations with Hollywood, but it was A Few Good Men that would garner greater praise and sell as film rights before the play even premiered. Sorkin’s theatre experience would certainly inform his style of writing in his film and television scripts going forward, and the adapted script for A Few Good Men is a prime example of that influence.
Loosely based on a real-life series of events, A Few Good Men concerns itself with a murder at a Guantanamo Bay Marine base. Lieutenant and Army lawyer Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, is ultimately assigned to the case along with Demi Moore’s JoAnne Galloway and Kevin Pollak’s Sam Weinberg. Resistance meets the defense team largely in the form of Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan Jessup, who tends to pop up only every now and then throughout A Few Good Men in order to steal scenes from under Cruise’s nose in typical Nicholson fashion. Cruise was at the time on a tear of Nicole Kidman collaborations (following Days of Thunder and Far and Away), so the military courtroom drama was likely a welcome change of pace.
And speaking of pace: Sorkin plots A Few Good Men as if this is his tenth screenplay, not his first. Tension builds beautifully throughout, never boiling over until the climactic “You can’t handle the truth!” trial-capper, and the success of even just that single line can probably be as easily ascribed to Sorkin’s careful writing as it can be to Nicholson’s spot-on delivery. Courtroom drama is a very distinct subgenre of the malleable “drama” umbrella, and in the hands of a lesser writer a lengthy trial can end up being a drawn-out and unexciting affair (see this year’s The Judge). Sorkin’s trial is rarely boring, and A Few Good Men knows when to ease up on the tension and when to lay it on thick.
More importantly, Sorkin’s character development seems to follow the same rules that he would employ on The West Wing and various other projects in the coming years. Rarely do these people talk about themselves – and if they do, it’s usually in relation to the case or the tasks at hand. The development comes entirely through their work, through their actions, and their morality and beliefs align with their stances in the trial. Nicholson’s Jessup is the steadfast, whatever-it-takes-including-murder Marine; Cruise the cocky, annoying know-it-all who still knows how to stand up for what’s right. The West Wing is probably the closest comparison in Sorkin’s portfolio, not only because of the political subject matter but because we get to know these characters through that subject matter instead of through a soap opera about their feelings.
There are more than a few moments of cliché in A Few Good Men, and perhaps they’re more noticeable now that the film is more than twenty years old. A character about to commit suicide is first treated to a tired montage of donning his military dress uniform, epaulettes and gloves and hat and all, while a voiceover naturally accompanies his careful and somber dressing. The gunshot is conveniently accompanied by thunder. Later, during the trial, Kevin Pollak’s Sam shows up in the courtroom at the very last minute with seemingly vital evidence, providing the sort of fabricated drama that never really does anything but distract from the actual drama unfolding in the meantime. Again, these familiar scenes might not have been so familiar in 1992.
And again, these are minor qualms. A Few Good Men is as impressive a script debut as you are likely to find, likely due to Sorkin’s theatre experience and clear devotion to research and accuracy in his writing. He’d be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay later that year and would soon go on to pen some of the most influential films and television series of the last quarter-century.