A Few Good Men – 4 stars

Image result for Colonel Jessup Trump

I just caught this in its entirety, and I had been thinking about the film in a political sense as well.  For those who might be unfamiliar, this is an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of his stage play, where a callow, dispirited and cynical JAG lawyer (Tom Cruise) is redeemed in his defense of two Marines on trial for the murder of a third after a hazing incident known as a “Code Red.”  The incident was ordered by Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), a rough and ready, cigar chomping patriot, who is content to let the Marines be convicted as collateral damage to a higher purpose (or so he would have us believe).

This a Hollywood vehicle of yore, with big names (Demi Moore was at her zenith here) and bigger speeches, and some of Nicholson’s lines have become ingrained in everyday talk (“You can’t handle the truth!”)

There can be no dispute – Jessup is a villain.  He lets his men hang.  Early on, he ostracizes Moore with a sexual putdown.  He loathes Cruise and his “faggoty white unform” and “Harvard mouth.”  He is even, in a very clunky line at the end, quasi-revealed as an anti-Semite (“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg?” — Weinberg had been sitting at counsel’s table minding his own business)  Jessup is a vain liar, and encases his ambition in the veneer of higher goals.  When you walked out of that film in 1992, you enjoyed Colonel Jessup, but you likely did not endorse him.

Twenty five years later, I got to thinking about Jessup and President Trump.  I have become convinced that a modern audience would walk out of the theater much more kindly disposed to Jessup, even after having had his monumental faults exposed by Cruise.  There would be greater sympathy for his swagger, and his vulgarity and cruelty would be more easily tossed off.  After all, he’s a doer, not some snide lawyer with a “Harvard mouth.”  Indeed, both Jessup and Trump are fixated on a wall (“because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall”).  Ask folks today, “Who is the hero?” and even though Jessup appears to be headed toward disgrace and a court-martial at the end of the film, I’m confident you’d have a near even split.

As the excesses of Trump pile on, seemingly without a dent in 40 to 45% of those who are periodically asked to provide a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I’ve heard any number of explanations, but the most widely disseminated is confirmation of the deplorability of his supporters, reducing a campaign flub to a gaffe (aptly defined by Michael Kinsley as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say”).  If I am right about A Few Good Men, that conclusion walks hand-in-hand with the Rise of Jessup.  The same mouth breathers who would conclude that Jack Nicholson is the hero opted for Trump over Hillary.  The same folks who support a raving narcissist who can say or tweet most anything would stand by a raging Jessup, as he screams, “I’m gonna’ rip the eyes out of your head and puke into your dead skull “  I doubt it is that easy, but I can see the appeal of assuming the dummies and the dark heart of America have finally combined to bring about Nero.

I think, however, that easy conclusion misses a few things.

First, Cruise would probably be respected by the Jessupites, even if loathed.  He bested their champion in the courtroom, and even though he’s a puling fancypants in his dress whites, you gotta’ give him his due.  With regard to Trump, however, I think the deplorables don’t have the same feelings about the forces – Clinton, the media, the punditry – who they feel were and are arrayed against him.  Because they conclude that those forces are every bit as corrupt as Jessup, their fealty remains strong.  As a graduate of the Harvard of the Shenandoah, I get where they are coming from.

Also, Trump, like Jessup, presents himself as not only a doer, but a bulwark against the corrosive forces of the establishment and their collective Harvard mouths.  I mean, three lawyers against a man who stands on the wall?  Come on.  Not even close.  There is a moment in Cruise’s cross-examination that emphasizes the distinction:  “Yeah, but it wasn’t a real order, was it? After all, it’s peace time. He wasn’t being asked to secure a hill or advance on a beachhead.”  That, of course, is the massage of the smart set.  There are orders and then, there are “real orders”, and invariably, the more the order disadvantages the snoots at their cocktail parties, the more it is coincidentally less real.

Perhaps most importantly, Jessup is just simply a helluva lot more entertaining than Cruise.  He has all the best lines, and in an age where entertainment and politics have seamlessly melded, that’s a quality that should not be underestimated.  Jessup and Trump are stars and they positively bask in the freedom to engage in the crudity that leads lessers to the podium,  spouse and dogs at their side, to ask forgiveness.  That hubris laid Jessup low.  But that was a quarter century ago.

As for the film, it holds up okay.  The Sorkin patter is snappy and smart but hadn’t yet been reduced to the gibberish of The West Wing, and Cruise and Nicholson define star power, both giving their all.

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15 comments
  1. Trumpkin said:

    This movie was released at the end of 1992, less than two years before Bill Clinton would go on MTV to talk about his underwear, just over three years prior to when he would start diddling Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, and just under six years prior to when the Republicans would fizzle in the 1998 elections as a result of putting Clinton’s morality on trial– all of this, 20+ years ago. If the theory is that Trump represents a debasement of our political gag reflex such that the pro-Jessup fraction has likely increased over the last 25 years, I’m not sure that’s right. Our politics have been debased for a long time.

    Also, why must the discussion of Trump, pro or con, begin with an expression of the author’s bona fides in considering Trump to be a crass boor? Does a credible argument in support of Clinton’s policies require a preface that one is totally opposed to jizzing on the interns?

    • The theory is not that Trump represents a debasement of our political gag reflex, though I agree that our politics have been debased for a long time. Hell, a cursory delve into the Kennedy administration would make most any reasonable person long for a hot shower, and somehow, the Copland strings and the harkening to Camelot can’t combat that stink. Rather, the theory is that Trump represents a particular flavor of debasement, one that aligns much more easily with Jessup than, say, a Clinton or a Kennedy, the upshot being that the level of consideration for Jessup, and even enthusiasm, has increased in parallel to the rise of Trump.

      As for an expression of the bona fides, my view is that Trump is, personally, a cretin, but it was expressed not to curry any particular favor or to inoculate myself from the slings and arrows of the smart set contingent ensconced in this website’s dozens, er, many readers, but because Jessup is a cretin in many of the same ways as Trump. And to be fair, there is only evidence in the historical record that Clinton ejaculated on the outerwear of interns.

      • Trumpkin said:

        I would describe the major similarity between Trump and Jessup this way: neither is willing to concede anything to an attacker regardless of his own underlying culpability. The difference is that Jessup is culpable for ordering the violent hazing of one Marine under his command, resulting in the death of that Marine, and for standing silently by while two other Marines are hung out to dry for that act, while Trump is culpable for– what, again? Cheating on his wife, and speaking coarsely about women? Maybe I’m overlooking something on the bill of particulars, but I feel certain that if negligent homicide were on the list, then Mueller would have charged someone by now.

        So of course, a Trump supporter would support Jessup for the superficial similarity, and would ignore the order of magnitude difference in their actual sins. That Col. Jessup! He’s a fighter, he is!

  2. I agree as to the two similarities you identify (unwillingness to concede and being a fighter). As for respective culpability, I worked with what i had, though I imagine Gordon Gekko comes off a lot better in the eyes of the modern viewer as well, for many of the same reasons Jessup’s stock has likely risen .

  3. Pincher Martin said:

    I have become convinced that a modern audience would walk out of the theater much more kindly disposed to Jessup, even after having had his monumental faults exposed by Cruise. There would be greater sympathy for his swagger, and his vulgarity and cruelty would be more easily tossed off. After all, he’s a doer, not some snide lawyer with a “Harvard mouth.”

    Well, back when the movie was released, Nicholson himself (who today is presumably no Trump supporter) said that he thought Colonel Jessup was right. I’m guessing Jack was talking about the need for tough men to guard walls, and not about his character covering up his role in a crime of manslaughter.

    *****

    But what’s this about?

    He is even, in a very clunky line at the end, quasi-revealed as an anti-Semite (“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg?” — Weinberg had been sitting at counsel’s table minding his own business)

    Is it your view that Jessup is probably an anti-Semite because he says the (Jewish) name of one of the seated lawyers during his tirade?

    I guess by the standards of today that’s as good a reason as any.

  4. I know it seems like a stretch. But watch it again. Weinberg is nowhere and no how a part of that scene. And Jessup goes right after him, out of nowhere. I think that is Sorkin creating a presumption of natural anti-Semitism in the working classes that takes purchase amongst the smart set, like somehow, in their dens with their plastic encased sofas, deplorables are just slamming on the Jews in the regular course. Now, maybe Sorkin was harkening back to the earlier scene with Weinberg, when he bad mouths his clients because they always pick on the weak kid, and Moore rebuts that she respects them because they are always on that wall. But why, then, have Jesup sneer “Weinberg!” Why not just have him cast the aspersion at the Harvard mouth who is actually cross-examining him?

    • Pincher Martin said:

      I know it seems like a stretch. But watch it again. Weinberg is nowhere and no how a part of that scene. And Jessup goes right after him, out of nowhere.

      Yes, but they had met before in Guantanamo Bay, and Weinberg was part of the defense team that calls him up to the stand.

      What’s more, Sorkin uses the Weinberg character in the same way he uses the Joanne Galloway character; they are the conscience of the military. Weinberg hates what Dawson and Downey did to Santiago, even apart from causing his unintentional death. He hates the bullying. He’s different from Galloway in that regard. She respects Dawson and Downey. She doesn’t want the two Marines to take the blame for what she believes were orders from their higher-ups.

      So Weinberg’s the weak conscience in the story. He doesn’t like defending bullies, but he doesn’t speak up much one way or the other. He’s simply there. While he tagged along when Kaffee and Galloway went to visit Colonel Jessup in Cuba, he was not the target of the colonel’s ire as they were. Because he didn’t speak up. But Jessup would’ve noticed him, would’ve noticed he was always quiet, always retreating into the backdrop of the scenes.

      So Jessup takes a shot at him. Not because Weinberg’s Jewish, but because Jessup (properly) senses that he’s not gung-ho about the military. He wouldn’t stand on that wall. Yet Weinberg is still part of the legal team trying to pin the blame on Jessup.

    • Pincher Martin said:

      Good lord:

      16. Someone told me once that they considered the line “Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg?” to be the most anti-Semitic phrase they’d ever heard.

      The most anti-Semitic phrase they’d ever heard?

      Imagine a movie viewer making this judgment, and a film critic reporting it uncritically, about a throwaway line in a movie that came out just one year before Schindler’s List in which a little Polish girl continually says to Jews leaving a ghetto in route to a concentration camp, “Goodbye, Jews!”

      • 65 years after Gentleman’s Agreement and 30 years after Shoah!

  5. Ha ha ha. Under overthinking it!

    https://www.overthinkingit.com/2009/11/05/he-cant-handle-the-truth/

    I think you probably have the better of it. To Jessup, Weinberg is a sniveling weakling who cries for the bullied. And he’s a nebbish. But just like Nixon, maybe Jessup conflates the Harvard Jews and the Harvard mouths while likely, if Weinberg served under him, he’d introduce him as “my smart Jew. These people, Danny, smart as a whip and good with a dollar.” He’d relish the power of being able to say it because, as a Marine, in the end, he only cares about whether you stand a post.

  6. Not entirely off topic, but I’m reading The Bystander, a book about JFK’s involvement in and impact upon the civil rights movement and came across this quote when he was running for Congress and telling the story of his PT 109 collision : “Now I’ve got a Jew and a Nigger in the story with me being a Catholic, that’s great.”

    I figure Jessup for that kind of raconteur.

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