I watched A Few Good Men (1992) with my family over the weekend. I believe it’s the third time I’ve seen it, once in the theater and two times on video. My son said he had seen it, oh, twenty-five times.
When you see a film more than once, you pay more attention to performances and script. The second time I saw the film, I found Colonel Nathan Jessep’s angry speech on the stand at the climax unsatisfactory, but didn’t give a lot of thought to why it was unsatisfactory. Jack Nicholson delivers the colonel’s challenge with proper force, but the substance is not convincing. You feel that writer Aaron Sorkin wants you to identify or even sympathize with the commanding officer, even though he’s a bad guy.
Jessep’s argument comes down to, “You should cut me some slack because I have a difficult job to do.” More significantly, he says, “The rules don’t apply to me, because I have important, difficult work, and the rules just make meeting my responsibilities even harder. If you want me to defend the country, you’ll have to accept some of the dirty work, and lies, that accompany that mission.”
Well at least he states the argument as clearly as can be. When I made these comments to my spouse after the film, she said, “Yes, that’s just like Dick Cheney.” She is correct. The basic, often unspoken argument Cheney used to justify his criminal behavior was, “I have important work to do, pipsqueak, and I’m not going to let a candy-ass fool like you get in the way.” He used that attitude to defend torture, or enhanced interrogation as he called it. He used the need to protect America from another 9/11 to justify any illegal activity he cared to undertake. Another 9/11: the ultimate ace to be played in any argument about whether or not the law matters.
The strength of A Few Good Men is that it illustrates how a bad attitude, coupled with power and a debased sense of responsibility, can lead to out-and-out crimes, where the perpetrator feels not the least guilt or shame about criminal behavior. Jessep sputters as the sergeant-at-arms places him under arrest. He cannot imagine how anything like that could happen to him, after a long career of uniformed service to his country. Cheney will die a free man, but he openly admits his crimes. “I would do it again in a minute,” he says about clear violations of law, entirely confident no one can punish him for torture he supervised.
A decade and a half after 9/11, we see where this attitude toward legal restraints leads. Cheney believed we needed a new Pearl Harbor to unite the country against its enemies. The attacks on Manhattan and Washington handed his team the freedom it sought. Then people everywhere began to see that rules, legal limits that bind us together because we all have to follow them, do not apply to people in power. This culture of entitlement among people in authority, the idea that rule-bound weaklings don’t know what’s required to protect them, corrodes all unity and all loyalty. Before long, victims start to think, “Who’s going to stop them?” God surely won’t.