The history of cinema is full of memorable quotes and legendary scenes, two essentials of great filmmaking that usually go hand in hand. There are even some movie lines that outlive the popularity of the films they come from, as is the case with Scarface‘s “Say hello to my little friend,” for example. In the case of AFew Good Men, one of the most memorable courtroom dramas of the 90s gave us an enduring quote that essentially defines Jack Nicholson’s entire character in the film: “You can’t handle the truth!”
The trial in A Few Good Men takes up a considerable amount of the film’s entire runtime, but it’s not all there is to it. That said, it seems like every moment in the entire movie builds up to the single moment when Colonel Jessup (Nicholson) “confesses” his guilt to Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise.)
What makes this particular scene so memorable? Is it Nicholson’s delivery of the “You can’t handle the truth” line? Or maybe, the secret lies in the spectacular filmmaking by Rob Reiner? Perhaps, it is one of those rarities of cinema where every little piece comes together to deliver a scene so powerful it stays with the audience long after the credits roll.
From a narrative standpoint, the entire trial in A Few Good Men is a masterclass in how to properly ramp up the tension in an otherwise mundane setting. The battle of wits between Kaffee and military prosecutor Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) is masterfully designed to keep the audience guessing. If you’ve ever watched any other courtroom drama, you’ll notice that a common pattern in these films is that the balance of power shifts with every passing moment. In this film, we never really know if Kaffee is taking the lead, or if he’s falling directly into Ross’s traps.
Of course, a few red herrings are also put into place to make things even more interesting. It all comes together once Colonel Jessup takes the stand – the moment the entire film has been leading up to, and an amazing demonstration of acting by two of the greatest performers of our generation.
Nicholson’s delivery is on point – the way he believes that his actions are morally justified, although based on a sense of entitlement and borderline fanatic notions of honour and duty, almost makes the audience feel for the character. However, Cruise losing his temper at the moment, raising his voice to overcome Nicholson’s screams, and snagging a confession out of the stubborn Colonel are just some of the elements that make this scene a standout moment in 90s cinema.
Behind the scenes, the “You can’t handle the truth” scene is also infamously revered for how thorough director Rob Reiner was for the whole thing. Most dialogue scenes in films are shot twice, once for each character. In the case of A Few Good Men, this particular scene at the climax of the movie was shot thirty times, just so every reaction from every character could be properly captured.
Even more impressive is that Jack Nicholson appears only in four scenes, totalling about 20 minutes of screen time. He worked on the film for a total of ten days, and he’s still arguably the character everyone remembers when they think of A Few Good Men. That, I believe, is the stamp of a legendary performance.