A Few Good Men is an outstanding courtroom drama with a complex agenda. On one level, it tells the story of two Marines who assault another Marine, resulting in his death. What were their motives? Did they attack him because someone higher up in the chain of command ordered them to do so? Most important, is a Marine expected to follow an order even when it goes against his moral sensibilities? Indeed, these are heavy questions; and the answer in part lies with what kind of conduct is expected of a Marine. He is a soldier fighting to protect his country, a noble cause. But in the process, he may lose his moral rudder and begin to devalue the life of others. There are no easy answers; and the film, in general, presents a balanced view of a very complicated topic.
On another level, A Few Good Men considers the question of whether people are willing to listen to the truth when it contradicts the very way they live.
Several years ago, a good friend of mine lost his job and wanted to borrow some money from me to use as a bridge until he found another job. I gave him the loan, but inwardly felt uncomfortable. I knew that my friend was a dreamer, not rooted to reality. He had moved from job to job, always in search of the perfect position, but he never found it. Moreover, he had a reputation for being wasteful with his money and, in fact, had no savings after being employed for fifteen years. I debated in my own mind whether I was an “enabler,” indirectly encouraging my friend to continue with his irresponsible and self-destructive ways. I wanted to tell him the truth, but I was not sure he could hear what I had to say and so I remained silent.
A memorable scene in the movie – ask anyone who has seen it –addresses this very issue. In a courtroom confrontation between Tom Cruise, the defense attorney for the accused soldiers, and Jack Nicholson, the general who gave the questionable command, General Jessup describes the sacred duty of a Marine to defend his country. This depends upon following orders, orders that at times place the Marine on a slippery moral slope but which must be carried out nonetheless. This is Jessup’s truth, which guides him as a military man devoted to defending the country. When skillfully provoked by the defense attorney, however, he loses his composure and shouts to the courtroom: “You can’t handle the truth.” Handling the truth means accepting complexity, realizing that in the pursuit of a noble cause, there may be collateral damage which may be unwelcome but necessary. Tom Cruise may have won the case, but Jack Nicholson’s assessment of his military reality is not to be dismissed.
Watching A Few Good Men reminded me of the difficulty all of us have in hearing the truth. To hear the truth, we must be willing to accept discomposure, complexity, and the reality that truth can be painful even as it enables us to grow. The Torah tells us that we have an obligation to reprove people, to tell them the truth about their character inadequacies so that they can improve. But the commentators make an interesting point based on the unusual language of the Biblical imperative: “you shall surely reprove.” In Hebrew this is expressed by a doubling of the verb for “reprove.” The double term indicates that we should only give reproof if the recipient will listen. Sometimes it is wiser not to reprove if the listener is not ready to hear it.