Hey, y'all! It's Sunday, so let's settle in and talk about A Few Good Men, the damn good Aaron Sorkin play and memable movie starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. I just rewatched the movie (while simultaneously reading the play because I'm a nerd) and was taken by its thematic relevance to our ongoing debate about law enforcement.

If you haven't seen the film, Cruise plays Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a Navy lawyer defending US Marines Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and Pvt. Louden Downey, who are accused of murdering fellow Marine Pvt. William Santiago at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. The men entered Santiago's room, tied him up, and stuffed a rag down his throat, which killed him. There's no alleged here because they don't deny their actions. Their only “defense" is that they were following orders and that production closed in Nuremberg.

The Marines claim they were ordered to give Santiago a “Code Red," a brutal, inhumane “training" tactic that includes pouring glue on someone's hands so they won't drop their rifle again or giving someone who doesn't bathe regularly enough a “GI shower" with scrub bushes and steel wool. It's barbaric and illegal but Nicholson's Colonel Nathan Jessup considers it “an invaluable part of training."


During Derek Chauvin's murder trial, his defense argued that the former Minneapolis police officer, who pressed his knee into George Floyd's knee for nine minutes and 29 seconds, "was doing exactly what he had been trained to do during the course of his 19-year career." While Black people never volunteered to serve in a militarized America, we were conscripted centuries ago, and it seems like cops are frequently conducting “Code Reds" on us.

Jessup contends that the nation's security depends on “training" the hell (and eventually the life) out of Santiago. The “warrior cop" mentality argues similarly, but on a grander scale: Black communities are filled with Pvt. Santiagos who must be kept under heel. Chauvin's defense claimed his torturous treatment of Floyd was the “maximum restraint technique" or the “hog tie," something cops were actually trained to inflict upon another human being.

Kevin Pollak's Lt. Sam Weinberg sums up my feelings on the matter when asked why he dislikes Dawson and Downey. Weinberg's speech is more extensive in the original play, which is what I'm quoting here:

They beat up on a weakling. And that's all they did. The rest is just smoke-filled, coffee-house crap. They tortured and tormented a weaker kid. And it wasn't just that night, read the letters, it was eight months. And you know what? I'll bet it was his whole life. They beat him up, and they killed him. And why? Because he couldn't run very fast.

The police stopped Eric Garner on a New York street on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. This type of petty harassment was also his whole life, and he was fed up: "Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today. Why would you...? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn't do nothing." The police quickly pinned him down and choked the life out of him. Beneath all the copaganda about protecting “our" streets from vicious criminals, here's the reality: the police torture and torment people who “resist" or just don't comply quickly enough. That's how cops are trained, and it shouldn't surprise us when people die as a result.

Demi Moore is Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway, a bad lawyer who's wrong most of the time and seems to exist as a Jiminy Cricket whose sole dramatic purpose is to help Kaffee realize his inherent white male greatness. The uncomfortable sexual politics of Sorkin's work is a separate topic. However, Galloway has a revealing moment when she explains why she admires Dawson and Downey.

WEINBERG: Why do you like them so much?

GALLOWAY: Because they stand on a wall and say, "Nothing's going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch."

Here, Galloway represents the white women, especially from the suburbs, who cops directly appeal to with their alarmist rhetoric. If the police aren't free to terrorize people in those communities, then nice white ladies can't feel safe in their gated communities.

Santiago obviously didn't have to die to keep Galloway safe. Similarly, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Freddie Gray, and Breonna Taylor weren't necessary sacrifices at the altar of American freedom. When Jessup is arrested, he accuses Kaffee of weakening the country and putting “lives in danger." His defeated villain monologue is eerily similar to Tucker Carlson's twisted remarks after Chauvin was rightly convicted of murder.

Dawson and Downey are found not guilty because their superiors, Jessup and Lt. Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland), ordered them to assault Santiago. The implication is that they were not free to make a moral judgement on their own. I've had cops make this argument when defending the three officers who stood by as Chauvin murdered Floyd. I find that repulsive because a police officer's duty shouldn't be to a uniform or a thin blue line but to the public, regardless of who is actually victimizing them.

Yet Dawson, at least in the film version of A Few Good Men, appreciates that he failed as a Marine and a person.

DOWNEY: Col. Jessup said that he ordered the Code Red. What did we do wrong? ... We did nothing wrong?

DAWSON: Yeah, we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willie.

This is the redemption that Derek Chauvin and the cops who killed McClain, Gray, and Taylor will never achieve. There's no evidence that they even desire it. And, yes, that's a truth about law enforcement few people can handle.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."

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