U.S. Marines Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and Private Louden Downey are facing a general court-martial, accused of killing fellow Marine Private William Santiago at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Santiago compared unfavorably to his fellow Marines, had poor relations with them, and failed to respect the chain of command in attempts at being transferred to another base. An argument evolves between base commander Colonel Nathan Jessup and his officers: while Jessup's executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Markinson, advocates that Santiago be transferred immediately, Jessup regards this as akin to surrender and orders Santiago's commanding officer, Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick, to train Santiago to become a better Marine.
When Dawson and Downey are later arrested for Santiago's murder, naval investigator and lawyer Lieutenant commander JoAnne Galloway suspects they carried out a "code red" order, a violent extrajudicial punishment. Galloway asks to defend them, but instead, the case is given to Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, an inexperienced and unenthusiastic U.S. Navy lawyer. Initially, friction exists between Galloway, who resents Kaffee's tendency to plea bargain, and Kaffee, who resents Galloway's interference. Kaffee and the prosecutor, his friend Captain Jack Ross (USMC), negotiate a bargain, but Dawson and Downey refuse to go along. They insist they were ordered by Kendrick to shave Santiago's head, minutes after Kendrick publicly ordered the platoon not to touch the would-be victim, and did not intend their victim to die. Kaffee is finally won over by Galloway and takes the case to court.
In the course of the trial, the defense manages to establish the existence of "code red" orders at Guantanamo and that Dawson specifically had learned not to disobey any order, having been denied a promotion after helping out a fellow Marine who was under what could be seen as a "code red". However, the defense also suffers setbacks when a cross-examination reveals Downey was not actually present when Dawson and he supposedly received the "code red" order. Markinson reveals to Kaffee that Jessup never intended to transfer Santiago off the base, but commits suicide rather than testify in court because he feels that he had failed to do the right thing by protecting a Marine under his command.
Without Markinson's testimony, Kaffee believes the case lost and returns home in a drunken stupor, having come to regret he fought the case instead of arranging a plea bargain. Galloway, however, convinces Kaffee to call Jessup as a witness despite the risk of being court-martialled for smearing a high-ranking officer. Jessup initially outsmarts Kaffee's questioning, but is unnerved when the lawyer points out a contradiction in his testimony: Jessup had stated he wanted to transfer Santiago off the base for his own safety and that Marines never disobeyed orders. But, if he ordered his men to leave Santiago alone and if Marines always obey orders, then Santiago would not have been in danger. Unnerved by being caught in one of his own lies and disgusted by Kaffee's questioning of the imperative to impose discipline within his unit, an enraged Jessup extols his and the military's importance to national security, and when asked point-blank if he ordered the "code red" he bellows with contempt that he did. As he justifies his actions, an exasperated Jessup is arrested; Kendrick is later arrested for his actions, too.
Soon afterwards, Dawson and Downey are cleared of the murder charge, but found guilty of "conduct unbecoming a United States Marine" and dishonorably discharged. Dawson accepts the verdict, but Downey does not understand what they had done wrong. Dawson explains they had failed to stand up for those too weak to fight for themselves, like Santiago. As the two prepare to leave, Kaffee tells Dawson he does not need a patch on his arm to have honor. Dawson, who had previously shown contempt for Kaffee for not understanding the Marine ethos, recognizes him as an officer and renders a salute.Tom Cruise as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, USN, JAG Corps
Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, USMC
Demi Moore as Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway, USN, JAG Corps
Kevin Bacon as Captain Jack Ross, USMC, Judge Advocate Division
Kiefer Sutherland as Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick, USMC
Kevin Pollak as Lieutenant Sam Weinberg, USN, JAG Corps
Wolfgang Bodison as Lance Corporal Harold Dawson, USMC
James Marshall as Private First Class Louden Downey, USMC
J. T. Walsh as Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Andrew Markinson, USMC
J. A. Preston as Judge (Colonel) Julius Alexander Randolph, USMC
Michael DeLorenzo as Private William T. Santiago, USMC
Noah Wyle as Corporal Jeffrey Owen Barnes, USMC
Cuba Gooding Jr. as Corporal Carl Edward Hammaker, USMC
Xander Berkeley as Captain Whitaker, USN
Matt Craven as Lieutenant Dave Spradling, USN, JAG Corps
John M. Jackson as Captain West, USN, JAG Corps
Christopher Guest as Commander (Dr.) Stone, USN, MC
Joshua Malina as Jessup's clerk, Tom, USMC
Aaron Sorkin as a lawyer bragging in a tavern
Note: Joshua Malina is the only actor to reprise his role from the original Broadway production.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin got the inspiration to write the source play, a courtroom drama called A Few Good Men, from a phone conversation with his sister Deborah, who had graduated from Boston University Law School and signed up for a three-year stint with the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps. She was going to Guantanamo Bay to defend a group of Marines who came close to killing a fellow Marine in a hazing ordered by a superior officer. Sorkin took that information and wrote much of his story on cocktail napkins while bartending at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. His roommates and he had purchased a Macintosh 512K, so when he returned home, he would empty his pockets of the cocktail napkins and type them into the computer, forming a basis from which he wrote many drafts for A Few Good Men.
In 1988, Sorkin sold the film rights for his play to producer David Brown before it premiered, in a deal reportedly "well into six figures". Brown had read an article in The New York Times about Sorkin's one-act play Hidden in This Picture, and he found out Sorkin also had a play called A Few Good Men that was having off-Broadway readings.
William Goldman did an uncredited rewrite of the script that Sorkin liked so much, he incorporated the changes made into the stage version.
Brown was producing a few projects at TriStar Pictures, and he tried to interest them in making A Few Good Men into a film, but his proposal was declined due to the lack of star-actor involvement. Brown later got a call from Alan Horn at Castle Rock Entertainment, who was anxious to make the film. Rob Reiner, a producing partner at Castle Rock, opted to direct it.
The film had a production budget of $33,000,000.
Nicholson would later comment of the $5 million he received for his role, "It was one of the few times when it was money well spent."
The film starts with a performance of "Semper Fidelis" by a U.S. Marine Corps marching band, and a Silent Drill performed by the Texas A&M University Corps of Cadets Fish Drill Team (portraying the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon).
Several former Navy JAG lawyers have been identified as the basis for Tom Cruise's character Lt. Kaffee. These include Don Marcari (now an attorney in Virginia), former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, Chris Johnson (now practicing in California), and Walter Bansley III (now practicing in Connecticut.) However, in a September 15, 2011, article in The New York Times, Sorkin was quoted as saying, “The character of Dan Kaffee in A Few Good Men is entirely fictional and was not inspired by any particular individual.”
Wolfgang Bodison was a film location scout when he was asked to take part in a screen test for the part of Dawson.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards:Best Picture
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jack Nicholson)
Best Film Editing (Robert Leighton)
Best Sound Mixing (Kevin O'Connell, Rick Kline and Robert Eber)
The film was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards:Best Motion Picture – Drama
Best Director (Rob Reiner)
Best Actor (Tom Cruise)
Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson)
Best Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin)
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Colonel Nathan R. Jessep – Nominated Villain
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Col. Nathan Jessep: "You can't handle the truth!" – #29
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
#5 Courtroom Drama Film
The film premiered at the Odeon Cinema, Manchester, England and opened on December 11, 1992, in 1,925 theaters. It grossed $15,517,468 in its opening weekend and was the number-one film at the box office for the next three weeks. Overall, it grossed $141,340,178 in the U.S. and $101,900,000 internationally for a total of $243,240,178.
On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 81% based on 58 reviews, with an average rating of 7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "An old-fashioned courtroom drama with a contemporary edge, A Few Good Men succeeds on the strength of its stars, with Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and especially Jack Nicholson delivering powerful performances that more than compensate for the predictable plot." On Metacritic the film has a score of 62 out of 100, based on 21 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews." Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A+" on an A+ to F scale, one of fewer than 60 films in the history of the service to earn the score.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine said, "That the performances are uniformly outstanding is a tribute to Rob Reiner (Misery), who directs with masterly assurance, fusing suspense and character to create a movie that literally vibrates with energy." Richard Schickel in Time magazine called it "an extraordinarily well-made movie, which wastes no words or images in telling a conventional but compelling story." Todd McCarthy in Variety magazine predicted, "The same histrionic fireworks that gripped theater audiences will prove even more compelling to filmgoers due to the star power and dramatic screw-tightening." Roger Ebert was less enthusiastic in the Chicago Sun-Times, giving it two-and-a-half out of four stars and finding its major flaw was revealing the courtroom strategy to the audience before the climactic scene between Cruise and Nicholson. Ebert wrote, "In many ways this is a good film, with the potential to be even better than that. The flaws are mostly at the screenplay level; the film doesn't make us work, doesn't allow us to figure out things for ourselves, is afraid we'll miss things if they're not spelled out."
Widescreenings noted that for Tom Cruise's character Daniel Kaffee, "Sorkin interestingly takes the opposite approach of Top Gun, where Cruise also starred as the protagonist. In Top Gun, Cruise plays Mitchell who is a "hotshot military underachiever who makes mistakes because he is trying to outperform his late father. Where Maverick Mitchell needs to rein in the discipline, Daniel Kaffee needs to let it go, finally see what he can do". Sorkin and Reiner are praised in gradually unveiling Kaffee's potential in the film.