With A Few Good Men, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin tapped into something deep in the zeitgeist that is still being felt by large audiences on both stage and screen.
The 1992 movie version of Sorkin’s courtroom thriller, about the court martial of two U.S. marines defended by navy lawyers, spawned television’s JAG in 1995, which led in 2002 to NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), which last year was voted America’s favourite TV show.
With such a history of crowd-pleasing, it’s no wonder that Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre chose to open their 2012-13 seasons with a crisp stage version of A Few Good Men.
Its attributes are mostly appealing but occasionally annoying. There’s no doubt that Sorkin’s script is a tidy, old-fashioned melodrama, ideal for mass consumption. It offers an easy night in the theatre because Sorkin does all the thinking for the audience, avoiding ambiguity while making us feel good about being on the right side of military malfeasance. No wonder the guy is now a screenwriting heavyweight.
Much has happened in the world since A Few Good Men’s debut on Broadway in 1989 — events such as 9/11, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and the war on terror have changed the reaction to the military and to the story about the death of a marine named Santiago at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Two young marines, Dawson and Downey, are quickly charged in the killing, appearing to having gone too far in subjecting Santiago to disciplinary action called Code Red, a euphemism for unauthorized (but sanctioned) punishment.
Some viewers will be uncomfortable with how A Few Good Men bangs the drum for the American military.
It opens with a brief commercial for the marines, with the cast singing the Marines’ Hymn (you know, "From the halls of Montezuma"), making sure we hear the words, "First to fight for right and freedom /And to keep our honour free." Others will be turned off by the sexism, the bullying and the shouting of the marines.
Immediately we meet the accused, stoic soldiers who admit that they bound and gagged Santiago, stuffing his mouth with a rag that caused him to die of asphyxiation.
A female naval investigator and lawyer, Lt. Commander Joanne Galloway, lobbies to defend them, but the case is given to Daniel Kaffee, an unexperienced Judge Advocate General’s Corps lawyer from the U.S. navy.
The fix is in, as Kaffee has a reputation for being so good at arranging plea bargains that he has never seen the inside of a courtroom.
The marine brass, including hard-ass commanding officer Col. Jessup, want the case to go away but Dawson and Downey won’t plead guilty because they were only following orders.
In the Tom Cruise role as Kaffee, Charlie Gallant is suitably bratty, a hotdog more interested in softball games than in the hardball played in the courtroom. Gallant’s handling of lightning-fast repartee, often at full volume, is impressive as Kaffee emerges as a David against the Goliath of the military system.
Galloway has her own issues to overcome, most notably the old boys who don’t want her to play. She doesn’t even get a seat at the table of men who are discussing the case. Her initial isolation is visually communicated by her uniform, which is white when the guys are in khaki, and khaki when they are in their dress whites. As the only female in the 16-member cast, Lora Brovold manages to stand up to Kaffee with fire and finesse.
There are also spit-and-polish performances from Paul Essiembre in the Jack Nicholson role of Col. Jessup, who takes on Kaffee in the climatic courtroom confrontation. The imposing Essiembre with his flattop hair doesn’t channel Nicholson but still manages to ignite the histrionic fireworks.
Among the Winnipeggers in the cast, Arne MacPherson, Andrew Cecon and Brent Hirose have their moments to shine but Jeff Strome, as the accused Dawson, is a ramrod-straight standout in embodying the marine commitment to honour and loyalty.
Director James MacDonald, the Citadel’s artistic associate, exhibits a lot of military precision in keeping this nearly three-hour production moving, thanks in large part to a stage revolve surrounded by Michael Gianfrancesco’s set, which is dominated by razor wire-topped walls and lights aimed at the audience.
MacDonald tips his hat to Sorkin off the top by having Kaffee and Galloway carry out a walk-and-talk, the scribe’s signature storytelling technique.
The feel-good ending is accompanied with a splashy use of the revolve for a whirling cast curtain call carried out in front of huge American flag. In giving A Few Good Men a standing ovation, audience members find themselves in the awkward situation of appearing to be whooping it up for the United States and its military.