on November 12, 2003
I think, if I'd never spent any time in the military, and didn't know how the military, and the people who make it up, operate (like, for instance, the writer and director of this movie don't), I'd have liked it a whole lot more. But having spent 10 years on active duty in the Army, there were two things about this movie that spoiled for me most of the enjoyment I might otherwise have gotten from it:
(1) The Tom Cruise character constantly smarts off to the Demi Moore character. His boss. His superior officer. He's a lowly Lieutenant, she's a Lieutenant Commander. In other words, he's a company grade officer; she's a field grade officer. This is a big deal in the military. My experience dealing with women of rank in the military is that, having invaded and excelled in a male dominated field of endeavor, they tend to be very concerned the men under their command won't respect them. Therefore, they DEMAND you respect them. But every time Moore tells Cruise to do something he ignores her, every time she gives him an order he has some smartass comeback and he refuses. And she just takes it. No woman who'd risen to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy could be such a milquetoast. Forget for a moment she's a woman. ANY officer worth their salt would have yanked Cruise bald the first time he lipped off. Metaphorically speaking (probably).
Finally, he pops off to her in front of the Nicholson character, who says to him, "You know, I just realized something. She outranks you." At which point, sitting there in the darkened theatre, I muttered to myself, "Thank God someone in this movie finally noticed that."
(2) The entire premise of the movie is bogus. Okay, two young Marines have beaten a fellow Marine, and because of a previously undetected medical problem he dies. So far so good. BUT the Cruise character, a JAG officer of years of experience, believes that if he can prove they were ordered to beat the dead Marine, they'll be let off. Because they were only following orders. Which is what soldiers/Marines are supposed to do, right? And Moore, with even greater experience than he, agrees. So we've got Tom Cruise, working and slaving and agonizing over how he's going to prove Kiefer Sutherland ordered these two Marines to beat another Marine, and that Jack Nicholson knew about it.
Uno-teeny-tiny problemo. According to military law, no military member has a duty to obey an unlawful order. On my first day in Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, they taught us that "I was just following orders" is not a valid defense if you break military law, that being ordered to break the law does not relieve you of the moral and intellectual responsibility to realize what you're being told to do is wrong, and refuse to do it. As a matter of fact, one of the first things - literally - they taught me in the Army was how to refuse an illegal order without being insubordinate. But Cruise - who should know better - figures if he can prove these guys WERE ordered to commit the actions that resulted in manslaughter he can skate them free. In the real world, any JAG officer with two brain cells to rub together knows that's not the case. Realistically, at most, he can take Sutherland and Nicholson down with them, for their part in the crime, but there's no way on God's green earth his clients aren't going to be convicted. But he doesn't realize that. And he should.
This was obviously a movie written and directed by people who've never been in the military, who don't understand how the military, and military law, works. This is a fatal flaw in a movie dealing with the military, and military law. They believe that soldiers/Marines are dogged robots who just mindlessly follow orders. And if you can prove they were following orders, they can't be held accountable for their actions. False. I've heard the attitude that the end of this movie, when the two Marines are convicted and sentenced for their actions, is a horrible, horrible thing. It's not. It's what would have happened in a real military trial. At least they got that much right.
On the other hand, Jack Nicholson as a hardcore Marine full bird Colonel (talk about casting against type) is worth two stars all on his own.