A Few Good Plots

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First off I need to say I like this movie. I have watched it several times. The script is so good. After several years I realized why the script is so good.

A Few Good Men is a 1992 American courtroom drama film directed by Rob Reiner and starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore, with Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollak, James Marshall, J. T. Walsh, and Kiefer Sutherland in supporting roles. It was adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin from his play of the same name. The film revolves around the court-martial of two U.S. Marines charged with the murder of a fellow Marine and the tribulations of their lawyers as they prepare a case to defend their clients.

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That was 1992. Three years later writer Aaron Sorkin broke big again with The American President. He then rolled the theme of that movie into the television series The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons. Both movies and the TV series have one thing in common, top notch production, acting, direction, and writing.

So, what’s wrong with this movie? It’s the plot. The plot for this movie is full of holes that you could march the Marine Corps Band through. Where to start? Here is the basic plot.

The movie opens at Guantanamo Bay Navy Base in Cuba. It’s night, and two Marine enlisted men steal into another Marine’s room while he is sleeping. They overpower him, stuff a cloth into his mouth, tape his mouth shut and proceed to rough him up. Bad news, the victim dies. The two Marine enlisted are charged with homicide. More bad news. Tom Cruise is assigned to defend them.

You’ve already seen the movie, so I’m going to skip the plot details. Here is where it falls apart.

The two Marine enlisted claim they did not intend to kill “young William Santiago.” They had been ordered by Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick to give Private Santiago a “code red.” That’s a bit of unauthorized, illegal, extra-judicial punishment. The deal was that Santiago was a complainer. He tended to fall back during marches and to pass out from the heat. He bypassed the chain of command, sending letters to congressmen and such asking to be transferred out of the command. Ultimately he offered to supply, in exchange for a transfer, the name of a marine who had illegally fired into Cuban territory. This is the final straw, and Marine commander, Colonel Nathan Jessup directs Private Santiago be disciplined, said discipline resulting in Santiago’s death.

The two Marine defendants are charged specifically with inserting a cloth with some unspecified poison into Santiago’s mouth, causing his death. The motive for the killing was supposed to be to keep Santiago from ratting out one of the defendants for the shooting offense. To keep the two Marines from spending all eternity in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) needs to demonstrate in court that the code red was ordered higher up the chain of command.

The big deal is that is Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) will, himself, be prosecuted if it comes out that he ordered extra (and illegal) extra-judicial punishment, especially since it resulted in death. So he lies. Lieutenant Kendrick lies. Now that they are lying, they need to cover it up. So they conjure up a fake story.

Jessup says he had not intention of disciplining Private Santiago. In fact, he had previously ordered Santiago to be transferred. This bit is a complete plot buster.

A veteran Marine colonel, capable of directing men in combat and making the right decisions under fire, for no good reason, concocts a completely unnecessary story he is later not going to be able to defend.

It was not necessary for Jessup to claim he had ordered Santiago’s transfer. All he had to say was that he and perhaps Lieutenant Kendrick had discussed it and the orders were going to be cut the following morning, except that Santiago died in the mean time. Now that Jessup has lied about a transfer that he never ordered, he has to cover up the lie. That is going to be very difficult. Here’s what is going to happen:.

Santiago has been issued orders for transfer. Somewhere in an office on the base there would be any number of people involved in preparing the orders. A Marine was going to be shipped so another facility in the United States. That other facility needs to be informed that Santiago would arrive the following day.

Santiago was told he was being transferred. Nobody, but nobody, else on the base knew about it. He never told anybody.

Part two of “The Plot Thins:” Jessup concocts a flight Santiago is to fly on to the U.S. Why? Why tell a story about a non-existent flight? There are plenty of flights between the U.S. and Guantanamo every day. All Jessup needed to do to avoid a load of trouble was to mention one of these flights. Now, to defend his story, he has to conjure up a flight that never took place. He has to alter the flight logs.

Step back a moment, dear readers, and take a look at what has to happen to fake a flight log.

  • You need a fake plane, identified by the tail number.
  • You need a fake pilot.
  • You need a fake co-pilot.
  • You need a fake plane captain.
  • You need a fake flight plan.
  • You might even need fake radar records.
  • You need somebody to create the fake log entry. You need to get another conspirator involved.

And that’s just on the Guantanamo end. A lot of this has to be replicated on the U.S. end of the flight.

Think about what is involved in the fake plane. The United States Government may be stupid in many ways, but it always knows where each piece of major inventory is at all times. Colonel Jessup says the plane took off early in the said morning from Guantanamo? Then check the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics for the flight records of that plane. Exactly where was that plane at the time specified?

And the pilots and the crew. The phony flight log will list the pilot, the co-pilot and the plane captain. Go ask those people if they recall flying out of Guantanamo that morning. Their memory is hazy? Check the pilot’s and the co-pilot’s flight logs. Is Colonel Jessup going to fake those, as well, and coerce these military officers into committing perjury? The task mounts up.

So, brilliant lawyer that he is, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee never thinks to run down these leads.

A big part of the prosecution of the two Marines is the use of poison on the cloth. This proves Santiago’s death was not accidental. This proves premeditate murder. Kaffee attempts to unwind the military pathologist’s testimony on the stand. What poison? (I don’t know.) Any trace of poison on the cloth? (No.) Why not? (The poison somehow proved to be untraceable.) And Kaffee is going to let it go at that?

Where did the Marines get the poison? Nobody saw them getting the poison?

Finally the supposed root cause of the whole business. Marine Lance Corporal Harold Dawson fired an authorized shot across the fence into Cuban territory. This was because he saw a Cuban soldier sighting in on his position. Bunch of rubbish. Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 relations between the United States and Cuba have been tense but never to the point of trading shots across the fence. Just to give readers a heads up, the Cuban government knows about American military strength and has never attempted to escalate tensions beyond the harassment and accusation stage. Sorkin, or whoever stuck in this plot device, should have spent a little more time looking for a reason implicate Lance Corporal Dawson.

As you already know, Lieutenant Kaffee did get a few things sorted out. He noticed that Santiago went to bed the night of his death, supposedly expecting an early morning flight out. He never packed his bags. He made no preparations to leave. Santiago, who was a pain in the butt about writing congressmen and relatives about his mistreatment, never sent a letter or made a phone call. I also mentioned that nobody else on the base knew he was being transferred. But Kaffee got the colonel on the stand and goaded him into bragging about ordering the code red. Colonel Jessup and Lieutenant Kendrick got arrested and charged with crimes in addition to the crime of perjury. The two lowly enlisted Marines got drummed out of the service with dishonorable discharges. Justice was served in spite of the flawed plot.

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11 thoughts on “A Few Good Plots

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  7. Jessup doesn’t conjure up a flight that never took place. He makes all records of a real flight disappear – the flight that Santiago would have been on if he were really going to be transferred off the base as Jessup claimed.

    • Chris,

      Thanks for reading. Having been a long time ago peripherally involved in Navy flight operations, I get the idea that the tracking of aircraft involves more people than could be compromised. A disappeared flight would be as much an anomaly as a faked flight. There are pilots, there is the aircraft “tail” number, there are aircraft maintenance records, there is the airplane captain – a Navy petty officer in charge of the aircraft. These people would remember making a flight from GTMO. Checking with the ground crew would have been pointless. Lt. Kaffee was derelict in not following this lead until after the trial started, when there was not enough time to do a proper investigation. I’m no lawyer, but at this point, if I were Kaffee, I would challenge the prosecution to demonstrate the flight ever took place.

  8. Oh absolutely – massive plothole to be sure.

    My own eyebrow raised and never came down after the botched cross-examination of the doctor.

    Still love the movie though.

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