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We Can't Handle The Truth

Let me get something out of the way: I really like A Few Good Men. It’s a great movie made by a good director, Rob Reiner, from a great script by a great writer, Aaron Sorkin, with an all-star cast (Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Jack Bauer). If it’s on the movie channels, I’ll watch it.

But the more I watch it, the more I have a problem with one small thing: the ending.

Let me explain. I have a theory that all great movies have a flaw, some little thing that sticks out more and more each time you watch it. The scene where Sonny beats up Connie’s husband in The Godfather. The French flashbacks in Casablanca. The line, “How often do you look at a man’s shoes?” in The Shawshank Redemption. (All the time. You look at a man’s shoes all the time, Red.). Since no movie--aside from a handful of Kubrick films, of course--is perfect, each has a little flaw in it.

In a A Few Good Men, the court room confession of Col. Jessup mars the film. Because we’ve been writing about this scene recently, and because we love it, Michael and I have been watching it a lot. It takes one of the best monologues in the history of film, turning into words the ugly mindset of a lot of soldiers have. Unfortunately, it couples this fantastic monologue with one of the worst, most unrealistic cliches in movie or film--the courtroom confession.

It annoys me on a number of levels:

1. It isn’t realistic. And that’s obvious. Courtroom confessions just don’t happen, especially with intelligent, powerful people like Colonel Jessup. If someone is going to break, it’s going to be during interrogation or investigation, not on the stand. If someone calls you to a trial, the person tells themselves, “All I have to do is not incriminate myself.” Why would they confess?

2. You’d think people would be smart enough to recognize these as cliches. They’re not.

3. This has real world consequences. Seriously. Read about it. In the 60’s and 70’s, guilty criminals went free because juries expected confessions. Compare this to the CSI effect. (CSI certainly isn’t on the level of A Few Good Men.)

4. It provides a happy ending. Why do we require happy endings? Why are so many films endowed with false, nearly Deus Ex Machina happy endings like this one? What is it about reality we aren’t able to face?

5. The ending implies the military serves up justice. By inserting a false, unrealistic happy ending, A Few Good Men subverts the public’s perception of how the military actually works. Its happy ending and character divergent confession hide the insidious nature of military justice.

Our military punishes enlisted soldiers, and excuses officers. The higher up an officer, the less likely he/she is to get punished. No officers stood trial for Abu Ghraib. Mostly the convicted were Sergeants and Specialists, a situation almost exactly mirroring A Few Good Men. Consider how the Army treats DUIs. If a lower enlisted soldier gets a DUI, they lose their rank, money and could face restriction to base for sixty days. Officers will usually get a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, which in today’s Army still won’t even hurt for promotion.

What would I write (if I were Aaron Sorkin)? Right after the speech, Tom Cruise asks, “Did you order the code red?” Jessup calmly, serenely, wisely smiles and says, “No, I would never issue an unlawful order.” Court is adjourned, and the guilty party goes free. Then I would add in a scene right afterwards where he whispers to Tom Cruise’s character, “You’re Goddamn right I did.”

It wouldn’t feel good. It would hurt. But it would be realistic, and it would mean something. I’d like to think we live in a world where the guilty always go punished, but I don’t.

Who can’t handle the truth? We can’t.

eight comments

Love your ending – much better. Oh well. Hollywood’s never been known for truth-telling.

I want to point out that Colonel Jessup’s speech, that we have mentioned before, is that it also is totally an ends justifying the means. Which I loathe.

Excellent analysis. I like your ending for the realism but it’s definitely not a happy ending. Some of the best films have less than happy endings: Braveheart, Casablanca, Unforgiven, etc. Imagine if Tom Cruise’s character was dishonorably discharged for attempting to expose a criminal conspiracy.

That’s because Sorkin pushes his political agenda which is always silly.

I don’t see the political agenda in this scene.

Good write up here:


1. Conservatives like Col. Jessep. He’s a conservative role model. The very conservative milblog black five linked to that speech, and praised it. (We included the link in the above post.)

2. Your linked post goes on to write the following:

“When Americans opened the Golden Door to millions of Jewish immigrants (from several of whom I myself am descended) in the late 19th century, if they had known that many of the grandchildren of those immigrants would be a bunch of permanent cultural subversives against this country, would they have let them in?”

Which pretty much speaks for itself.

I found this line to be most informative:

In these respects both “A Few Good Men” and “What Makes Sammy Run?” fit a pattern I’ve previously discussed: ostensibly liberal movies with a recessive conservative message—a message that perhaps even their liberal creators were not aware of.