For the average contemporary American, the title of this essay would not be metaphorical, but a direct reference to an iconic film made in 1992. Let’s take a phrase association test: “a few good men” – famous movie starring Tom Crews, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore and Kevin Bacon, about a military incident where 2 Marines are accused of — so forth and so on.
You’ve seen it, right?
As mentioned previously in this ever growing mass of dubious philosophical patter, I have long ceased being a “cinophile”. The basic raw material offered by the film industry almost never interests me and the physical reality of sitting in a huge, dark, pulsating amphitheater of mega-sensory light and sound, does not appeal to me. I’d rather sit outdoors and try to figure out what the pigeons are doing when they fly around in dense formations (I can’t figure it out).
But cinema is a robust element of all modern societies. Any chicken soup philosophers who would pay no attention to such a universal strain of cultural DNA would be doing themselves and their “philosophy” a disservice. Cinema and the culture it operates in come at each other on a two way street: culture affects cinema and cinema affects culture. It is too basic a part of contemporary life for anyone with thought pretensions to ignore.
I do not ignore cinema, but I’ve learned to take it in a smaller dose. I do not use it as habitual escapist entertainment. I do not use it as some kind of diversionary caffeine. I do not use it as a placation of boredom. Rather than using it as an addictive substance or a drug with unforeseen side effects, I always use it, as I do with everything, as an intellectual search for enlightenment (and I admit my own particular brand of neurosis here). When it comes to cinema, far more often than not I am enlightened by how vapid and adolescent it can be, by what a waste of time and resources it so often becomes — but that is a form of enlightenment also. An understanding of what is not good is relevant in recognizing what is good.
Cinema can be very good, even transcendental. “A Few Good Men” is very good.
The cultural pervasion of the motion picture is something like the Super Bowl: regardless of your interest or lack thereof, it will still seep into your consciousness. It is something that cannot be totally escaped or ignored. In spite of my tepid involvement in the movie making world, I’m aware of what is out there, who’s hot, what’s not, and where the action is. The huge promotional apparatus of this behemoth industry would probably reach Robinson Crusoe in this day and age.
When I actually do watch a film it is almost always a channel surfing stop on a movie that came out a few years earlier (or even more). I will generally watch no more than 10 to 15 minutes, just enough to verify the mediocrity of the product and to get a sufficient sampling of the erotic qualities of whatever feminine splendor is fulfilling such a role (wow, Cameron Diaz!). And then it is on to the rest of my life.
But not always.
About a month ago, I bumped into “A Few Good Men” somewhere near its beginning. I’d seen enough snippets of this film to realize it might actually offer something worthwhile. I decided to watch it to its conclusion, a decision that was well worth the effort. It is a finely crafted work with excellent performances by its entire cast — but, as he’s been able to do throughout his career, Jack Nicholson stole the movie. His portrayal of a combat tested, hair bristling, hard nosed Marine Corp officer has etched its way into cinema history. Here’s another phrase association test: “You can’t handle the truth!” – Jack Nicholson in the movie “A Few Good Men”.
The film in question does not entirely satisfy me. I’m always suspicious and somewhat cynical with the hyper-romantization of the military persona and all these rigid codes of honor with heroic tints of self sacrifice. Obviously, being in combat where they are trying to kill your guys and your guys are trying to kill their guys, will form some of the strongest bonds human beings can experience. But that is a circumstantial development, one not based upon formal codes of honor or integrity. Most military people go to work, do their jobs, like or dislike their bosses, work the system and try to get along as best they can — like anyone else.
I can overlook this in a film like “A Few Good Men” because its overriding message is not only correct, but important to enunciate clearly. The movie had it right with regard to good guys and bad guys, with regard to right and wrong. Most importantly! — it showed me how our country has swayed from this course and how it has lost it righteous North Star.
The germination of this essay began when viewing “A Few Good Men” about a month ago, but it was born to the light just a few days ago, when I bumped into the film yet again, this time when Nicholson’s character was just taking the stand and those historic ten minutes of cinema history were about to begin. I will assume the reader is familiar enough with the film so I can be brief: two underling Marine soldiers are being tried for killing another Marine who was arbitrarily deemed soft and incompetent by some kind of internal Marine Corp grapevine, so much so that he would supposedly be a danger or burden for the rest in a combat situation. Their defense is that they were ordered to do so by someone up the chain of command, someone hidden in the folds and creases of a complicated plot. Nicholson’s character is at the top of this chain and the team of lawyers defending the soldiers, led by Tom Crews’ character, knows it was him. It is only a question of proving it.
As we all know, the Nicholson character eventually loses his composure and admits to being the one who ordered the killing, but he does so with a sense of pride and honor, as if he has fulfilled his sacred duty to God and country. And the famous cinema rant begins: he derisively chides Crews and his team of lawyers for never having been in combat, for never having “stood a post”, for not being able to understand what it means to defend this country, and we should all be grateful to him and his kind, and if it means bending the rules sometimes, so be it, because if not for him the rest of us would have nothing, you could kiss your freedom good bye, and it is me! and people like me! who have the guts to do it, so get down on your knees and lick my boots for all I do for you — etc., etc., obviously, I am paraphrasing but not swaying from the message.
Having now delivered his Holy Sermon, Nicholson gets up, straightens his uniform and majestically proclaims, “And now, if you don’t mind, I will return to my unit” (or something close to that) and begins to exit. The judge calls him to order and he is immediately surrounded by 2 burly military policemen. He barks something at Crews, calling him “son”, as he has been throughout the trial. Crews tells him not to call him “son”, that he’s an officer in the United States Navy. They stare each other down. Nicholson is taken into custody and led away. He is humiliated. He is the bad guy. He is the loser.
And here I was watching this masterful piece of cinema art 18 years later, and I thought, y’know, if they made this movie today the roles would be reversed. Nicholson would be the heroic good guy, while Crews and his bunch of educated, lily livered liberal lawyers, defending such abstract notions as the “law”, would just be getting in the way. And maybe it is because the nation is mired in two debilitating wars that are difficult to justify; and maybe it is because I am writing in November, where the Veteran’s Day holiday now seems to go on for 2 weeks rather than 2 days, but it seemed like the rhetoric of the great cinema rant had become the normal, every day rhetoric of American media propaganda. The troops are wonderful. The troops are heroically defending our freedom. The troops are the best we have. Without the troops we wouldn’t be able to run the toilet paper of liberty across our fat asses, and don’t you forget it! Ergo, being that these wonderful troops protecting our freedom are the only ones fighting our wars, the wars must be good. Nicholson’s rant is vindicated, regardless of any “irregularities” that may occur along the way.
Did someone say “irregularities”? For almost their whole 8 year run in power, the Bush-Cheney minions justified their “irregularities” with the exact same rhetoric as the Nicholson rant. Be you an American citizen or not, they tortured, they wiretapped, they spied on us, they disregarded judicial approval, they denied due process, they lied to Congress, they lied to the United Nations, they defecated all over our Constitution and the rights enunciated therein, so we could all be — now get this — free! Why? Because someone had to do it. Because someone had to have the balls to do it. Because it was their job to do it. Because if they didn’t do it, the rest of us would be slaves.
And guess what? Unlike Nicholson, they all walked.
And this is how the movie would end if it were made today: Nicholson completes the same unforgettable tirade, gets up, declares he will now go back to his unit, starts to exit, the burly military police stop him, just like in the original. But now the script changes. There is an extended, inky, air thickened silence in the room. Nicholson stares haughtily at the police, his head up, his jaw firmly set. The police hold his gaze and then, unsure, look to the judge for guidance. The judge imperceptibly conveys a signal. The two policemen take a long step back, come to attention and militarily salute Nicholson, who, in turn, comes to attention and returns their salute. He then starts towards the exit, stops, and turns towards Crews. They stare at each other for a few moments that seem eternal, until Crews says, “I was just doing my job”. Nicholson smiles. “And a good job you did”. He quickly turns and strides out the door. THE END.
I’m glad this movie was made 18 years ago, when this country still had some concept of the principles it was created upon.
I began writing essays in the early 90’s, the collection “Because You Never Asked” being a fractional but representative cross section of an output that is still in progress today. I restrict their content to anything that may be relevant since the dawn of time to the end of eternity. They’ve given me a kind of therapeutical way to voice my objections to the paradigm of our culture and the negativity it is leading us into. All cultures attempt to inculcate their constituents into someone’s narrow minded, self serving version of reality and this book is an attempt to translate these subterfuges into the truth. Although a number of my earliest essays are included in this collection, the vast majority of them are more contemporary. Regardless of their chronology, they should all still be pertinent to whatever is happening at this moment.
To order you copy of “Because You Never Asked” by Jerome Grapel click here.