Tom Cruise was one of the biggest stars in the world in the 1990s (and the 1980s and 2000s and 2010s), but even he was not immune to the lure of the legal thriller. That very specific subgenre of film reached its apex of popularity and ubiquity in the 90s, when movies like The Client, A Time to Kill, and My Cousin Vinny ruled the box office. Before the appeal of the legal thriller dwindled, Tom Cruise made a few and the single best and most successful one is currently streaming for free. You can watch the 1992 film A Few Good Men on the FreeVee service and see one of the low-key strongest performances of Tom Cruise’s entire career right now.
At this point, A Few Good Men is more meme than movie. That is a sad fate for a movie that was nominated for four Academy Awards (including best picture) and introduced playwright Aaron Sorkin to Hollywood. There is no denying the power of the climactic scene in which Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, USMC (Jack Nicholson in his astonishing tenth Oscar nomination) shouts “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” at Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee under cross-examination, but there is much more to the movie than that. There is more to that single scene than that, even, for which Nicholson reportedly did between 40 to 50 full volume takes. But not even Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson cannot fight the power of a good meme.
Tom Cruise stars in A Few Good Men as a low-achieving, shiftless Navy lawyer who has a record for accepting plea bargains at any opportunity. Demi stars as Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (a role that Jodie Foster and Linda Hamilton were also up for), a much more dedicated Navy lawyer who is investigating a case in which Marine Private William Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo) was apparently beaten to death while at base in Guantanamo Bay. In the course of the investigation and eventual trial, it becomes apparent that Santiago was not only beaten by fellow Marines on a “code red” order from superiors, but that he was a potential whistleblower of a gunshot incident that could threaten the fragile detente between the United States and Cuba.
A Few Good Men was adapted by Aaron Sorkin from his own play of the same name, in which Tom Hulce (of Amadeus and The Hunback of Notre Dame fame) played the Tom Cruise role. Fittingly for both a play, a legal drama, and a Sorkin project, A Few Good Men is a very dialogue-heavy film, in which the tension is derived from Navy personnel constantly warring against their training to remain civil. Fortunately, this was directed by Rob Reiner in his golden period of crossing genres that included the monumentally influential romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…, the Stephen King horror film Misery, and the fantasy adventure The Princess Bride. It also benefits from a stacked cast to support Tom Cruise that includes Kevin Pollak, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland. Even the smallest roles get recognizable faces like Twin Peaks’ James Marshall, a pre-Jerry Maguire Cuba Gooding Jr., and Christopher Guest (probably doing a favor for buddy Rob Reiner).
In a way, Tom Cruise’s performance in A Few Good Men is the antithesis of the role he had become famous for, the brash, cocky prodigy who needs to learn humility and control before realizing that he is, in fact, the best in the world. He had played the role in Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and The Color of Money, but his Navy lawyer is depicted as not particularly talented, notable, or motivated. In fact, Tom Cruise is assigned to the case in part to make sure it gets brushed under the rug quickly and with as little fuss for the Navy as possible. Instead, Tom Cruise learns that he actually does have passion for justice in him and needs to learn to have confidence enough to break his composure and yell at Jack Nicholson.
A Few Good Men made a gigantic $243 million at the box office off a comparatively small $40 million budget, and still holds a 83% at Rotten Tomatoes. Every member of the primary cast and Aaron Sorkin would go on to bigger and bigger things within the decade, but this legal thriller is a fascinating example of an unusually stripped-down and simple performance from Tom Cruise. Worth a watch, especially for free.