The Real Villain of "A Few Good Men"

Admittedly this is not a big issue. It’s not a small issue. It’s not an issue at all, and it shouldn’t obsess me. I mean it’s just “A Few Good Men.” I once asked a friend, “Do you know who the real villain of ‘A Few Good Men’ is?”

He responded: “The people who made that movie?”

So, yeah, it’s silly for me to be so obsessed with this thing. But I can’t help it, and I’m waiting for the Kentucky Derby to start, and I don’t like Mint Juleps. So I’m just going to get this out.

The real villain of “A Few Good Men” is Joanne Galloway, played by Demi Moore. She is the worst character I have seen in any moderately decent movie and if there had been any justice in the movie SHE would have been the one arrested at the end instead of Jack Nicholson’s Nathan Jessep. For you to even REMOTELY care about this, you must have seen A Few Good Men, preferably several times (which I imagine you have because it is on television on 17 different channels every day). I assume you are more than familiar and so will offer only a quick refresher of the plot. If you haven’t seen the movie, may I humbly suggest you click over to my ranking of baseball managers as players.

Two Marines in Guantanamo Bay are charged with attacking a fellow Marine in the middle of the night and killing him. This Marine -- William T. Santiago -- was by all accounts a screw-up and he was so desperate to get out of Guantanimo that he wrote letters to various high ranking officials begging for his release. He was so desperate that he even proved willing to offer information about what he called an illegal fence line shooting involving one of the Marines charged with killing him.

Ah. A motive.

Our villain Joanne Galloway works in Internal Affairs, and she gets wind of this. She is very interested in being involved in the case because she is convinced that this is a “Code Red,” meaning a violent and over-the-line training method used by unscrupulous commanders. She seems convinced that the two Marines (who had exemplary records) were ORDERED to attack Santiago in order to train him. Nicholson’s character has already been warned against using Code Reds, but he’s a pretty classic bastard and nobody really believes he has stopped using Code Reds.

Well, the movie has already shown a scene of Nicholson ordering the Code Red, so we know she is right. To me, by the way, that’s one of the big flaws in the movie -- they tell us too much before it happens. To make this more interesting, in my view, they should not have shown that earlier scene and let us learn gradually that this was a Code Red.

But this isn’t a review. It’s an exploration of the awfulness of Joanne Galloway.

OK, so she wants the case but her superiors decide she’s too much of an avenging loose cannon to handle the case with any tact. They don’t want a fight here. They basically want this whole thing to disappear with as little damage as possible so they hire a hotshot and unserious lawyer named Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) in the hopes he will just settle the case quickly, quietly and without anyone having to challenge Nicholson, who is a star on the rise in the U.S. government.

The two Marines -- I guess we should name them, there’s Harold Dawson and Loudon Downey -- are uncommunicative at first but they do finally admit to Kaffee that it WAS a Code Red, that Nicholson’s henchman Jonathan Kendrick (played in creepy fashion by Keifer Sutherland) came into their room and specifically ordered them to grab Santiago in the middle of the night, tie him up and and shave his head (every one on both sides seems to believe the death was unintended). Joanne couldn’t be happier; she now has her Code Red case. She is involved because she sweet-talked Loudon Downey’s aunt and made herself Downey’s lawyer. This is the kind of person we are talking about.

Kaffee still wants the Marines to take the generous plea bargain offered by the U.S. Government -- six months time (“It’s a hockey season, it’s nothing!” he says) and a dishonorable discharge -- but one of the Marines, Harold Dawson, refuses. Dawson is a man of principle and he does not think they did anything wrong. Downey, who now has the misfortune of having Joanne as his lawyer, seems meek and not especially bright and he will do whatever Kaffee says.

So now we have our path. What will Kaffee do? Will he still try to settle even knowing that his client was following orders? Will he remove himself from the case? Will he take it on even though he KNOWS that this one is a sure loser? Turns out Kaffee has all sorts of issues with his father, the former attorney general of the United States, who apparently never said anything good to him or something. So he thinks about it and thinks about it and finally decided to keep the case and plead not guilty.

And we have our movie. Kaffee has no proof and he will try anyway to convince a jury that Dawson and Downey were ordered to attack Santiago. What Kaffee does not realize is that in addition to his countless other disadvantages, he has also inherited a lawyer partner who knows nothing about the law, is utterly incompetent and smug and tries to get him and her client thrown in prison.

Yeah, that would be Joanne.

We begin to see just what a horror Joanne is afer Kaffee cross-examines Dr. Scott (played by Christopher Guest). This doctor determined that the two Marines must have poisoned the rag they stuffed in Santiago’s mouth even though he couldn’t find any poison on it. Before the cross-examination, Kaffee had objected to the doctor even being allowed to speculate about the poison. The judge overruled him and said that he should be able to get his case across in his cross examination of Scott.

Well, Kaffee did make the doctor look like a fool. He was undoubtedly feeling pretty good about himself. And then Joanne decided to RE-OBJECT to the doctor.

Joanne: “Your Honor, we renew our objection to Commander Stone’s testimony and ask that it be stricken from the record. And we further ask the Court to instruct the jury to lend no weight to this witnesses testimony.”

The judge looks kind of shocked by this. He apparently has not had anyone renew objections he’s already overruled.

Judge: The objection’s overruled, counselor.

Joanne: The defense STRENUOUSLY objects and requests a meeting to confer with you so that his Honor might have the opportunity to hear discussion before ruling on the objection.”

Now, the judge is ticked off. What is this?

Judge (yelling): The objection of the defense has been heard and overruled.

Joanne: Move to reconsider!

Move to reconsider. This is who we are dealing with. Judge: “The witness is an expert and the court will hear his opinion!”

Yes, she bullies the judge into stating that the doctor is an expert. This whacked out exchange leads to a classic bit from Kevin Pollak who mocked the whole strenuously object business (“Strenuously object. Is that how it works?”)

If it was just this bit of stupidity, though, I would be able to move on from it. OK, she’s a terrible lawyer who won’t take no for an answer. Fine. But her lawyering gets much, much worse.

As the lawyer for Loudon Downey, her one meaningful job seems to be getting him ready for cross examination. The movie suggests she works on this pretty relentlessly; teaching him how to give his answers quicker and with more confidence. Downey seems to make it through the Kaffee questions pretty well but then he is cross-examined by Captain Jack Ross (played by Kevin Bacon) and the questioning takes an odd turn. Suddenly they are talking about a flat tire and how long it takes to run from where the flat tire happened to the barracks. Kaffee -- and you can feel his pain as he realizes that Joanne is even more incompetent than he had suspected -- writes down on paper: “Where is he going with this?”

She writes down the single mark of her character. She writes down a question mark.

Turns out, Jack Ross is going here: Downey wasn’t even in the room when the Code Red was ordered. He was running back after the flat tire. Joanne had one responsibility -- ONE RESPONSIBILITY -- and she screwed it up so badly that she left her beloved client in line for perjury. That kid’s poor aunt must have been ready to jump off a bridge at this point.

This led to another classic exchange where you can feel Danny Kaffee’s pure disgust:

Danny: He wasn’t in his room. He wasn’t even there. That was an important piece of information, don’t you think?

Joanne: Danny, it was a setback. And I’m sorry. But we fix it and move on to Markinson.

Setback. Yeah, that’s all it was. By the way, as you know, Markinson was a Marine from Guantanamo (played by J.T. Walsh) who knew that it was a Code Red. Unfortunately, he was also a crackpot and he killed himself, something Joanne didn’t yet know.

Danny: “Markinson’s dead. ... And since we’re out of witnesses I thought I’d drink a little.”

Joanne: I still think we can win.

Danny; Maybe you should drink a little.

And then Joanne does the dumbest and most irresponsible thing of all. She tells Kaffee to call Jack Nicholson to the stand and basically get him to admit through some sort of trickery and voodoo that he ordered the Code Red. Let’s understand something: This is someone who works in Internal Affairs. This is someone who, we are told, knows the rules backward and forward. And she is now trying to convince Kaffee to charge NIcholson with a crime without proper evidence, which is illegal and unethical and leads directly to a court-martial.

It is this incredibly bad advice -- I am reminded by Brilliant Reader Greg -- that causes Kaffee to call her ‘galactically stupid.” So there is that. But in the end, Kaffee ludicrously TAKES HER ADVICE, leading to the “You can’t handle the truth!” line that was made famous. But before that happens we get one more Joanne bit. A few seconds before he goes out there to take his chances with Nicholson, Joanne has one more bit of advice for Kaffee:

Joanne: Listen. Danny. When you’re out there, if it’s not gonna happen, if you feel like he’s not going to say it, don’t go for it. You could get in trouble. I’m with internal affairs, and I’m telling you. You could get in a lot of trouble.”

What? Huh? Who is this maniac? She convinces Kaffee to call Nicholson to the stand where he is risking a court martial and disbarment and then at the last minute she gives this bizarre anti-pep talk where she sort of reminds him that he might get in trouble. He already knew that! He told her that! This is like sending up a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the ninth, Game 7 of the World Series, and then a few seconds before he hits saying to him, “Yeah, I’m really not too sure this is a good idea.”

This character is a nightmare.

I can’t for the life of me understand why the Good Men people would have written such a dreadful character, especially for the only woman in the movie. I mean they couldn’t give her ANY redeeming qualities? OK, the strenuously object scene was fun and they could have used that. But did they have to make her THIS brain-dead, THIS crazy, THIS destructive? If Nicholson doesn’t admit the Code Red -- and I still don’t think it’s realistic that he would -- Downey gets an extra few years for perjury, Kaffee is (in his own words) teaching typewriter maintenance and Nicholson is running American security.

Seeing Nicholson get taken away by authorities at the end is fine. But in a just world, the final scene is of Joanne Galloway packing her stuff and telling Kaffee that she will find another job but first is going back to St. Elmo’s for a few drinks.