Scene Review: A Few Good Men - "You can't handle the truth!"
Today we are going to talk about one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, where two acting legends go at each other in a court room, and perform some of their best work. Who are these two actors? None other than Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. If you haven’t guessed the film yet, where have you been for the last 25 years?
A Few Good Men is a brilliant film, and one of the best law films around in my opinion. It’s full of some of the best actors around, such as Cruise, Nicholson as mentioned above, as well as being treated to the likes of Kevin Bacon, Demi Moore, just to name few of a long list.
This movie is about a lawyer, Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, who has been appointed the task to defend 2 marines who are being accused of murder, but defend themselves by confessing they were just following orders. This for me automatically makes you intrigued in the film, as it is clear the defendants are in a catch 22, disobey orders or commit murder, both crimes.
This then leads us to the scene itself that we are talking about. As the film starts to reach its climax, we find ourself in a court room with Tom Cruise’s character, Kaffee, calling up Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, to the stands.
What I love about this scene is how Kaffee plays on Jessup’s ego as a confident Colonel, in complete control over his marines. Asking him questions like “Any chance Lt. Kendrick ignored that order” knowing full well the Colonel prides himself of having complete power over his marines. The Colonel is so confident that people follow his orders, he digs himself into a hole by playing on Kaffee’s lack of front line service. He even solidifies this by asking Kaffee if they were clear on what point he was getting at, to put your life in another man’s hands whilst serving in the army, to which Kaffee replies “Crystal”. This is one of my favourite parts of the scene as Kaffee is quoting what Jessup had said earlier when Kaffee asked him if he was sure his marines followed his orders when he told them to leave the victim alone.
Kaffee keeps on poking the Colonel, until he then asks him directly what were the exact orders given to the marines, to which we then see Jessup start to backtrack, telling the lawyer that sometime soldiers can take matters into their own hands. “No, sir, You made it clear just a moment ago that your men never take matters into their own hands. Your men follow orders or people die. So Santiago shouldn't have been in any danger at all, should he have, Colonel?” states Kaffee - this is a brilliant bit of foreshadowing by the lawyer by making sure the Colonel tells everyone how certain he is about marines following his orders at the start, before then asking the direct question, that gives Jessup no way out. Stuck in a hole he was unknowingly digging. This then confirmed by Jessup with him replying with a simple insult calling Kaffee “a snotty nose, little bastard” leading us to the moment everyone quotes just as much as the I Am You Father scene in Star Wars...
“Colonel Jessup, did you order the Code Red?!” asks Kaffee, “I'll answer the question. You want answers?” responds Jessup, “I think I'm entitled!” Kaffee demands. As the tension builds, Jessup asks “You want answers?!” with Kaffee then yelling “I want the truth!” he is then hit in the face with a thunderous reply - “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”.
Just writing that description makes my hairs stand on end.
Jessup continues to then talk about honour and defending his country not matter the cost, so that people like Kaffee can sleep well at night, that every decision he makes saves lives, even if sometimes people may not like what decisions are made. Kaffee ignores his attempts of excusing what he has done and asks him again if he ordered the Code Red, which then Jessup finally gives in an admits that he did give the order.
This scene is a landmark in cinema history, one no one will forget. Tom Cruise may not have won any Oscars in his career but this moment confirms he is one of the best. There is no glitz or glam, just two men talking, yet its intensity is higher than many action films, which in turn makes it a complete work of movie genius.