“A Few Good Men” Movie Synopsis The movie centers around Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, son of a former Attorney General and Navy Judge Advocate General, who is an inexperienced U. S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps lawyer who leads the defense in the court-martial of two Marines, Private Louden Downey and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson, who are accused of murdering a fellow Marine of their unit, Private William Santiago, at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Santiago compared unfavorably to his fellow Marines, had poor relations with them and failed to respect the chain of command.
He went above his superiors to bargain for a transfer in exchange for blowing the whistle on Dawson for firing a possibly illegal shot towards the Cuban side of the island. In a flashback, Colonel Nathan Jessep, the Commanding Officer of the accused, reads the letter detailing the incident to two subordinates: his executive officer Lieutenant Colonel Markinson, and Lieutenant Kendrick, Santiago’s platoon commander. Jessep and Kendrick are incensed at Santiago’s actions, but decide not to transfer him despite the objection of Markinson.
After giving Markinson a dressing-down for questioning his views on the matter, Jessep calls Kendrick in to discuss “the training of young William. “When Dawson and Downey are later arrested for Santiago’s murder, Naval investigator and lawyer Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway suspects that they were carrying out a “code red”: a euphemism for a violent punishment. Galloway requests to defend them but the case is given to Kaffee, who has a reputation for arranging plea bargains.
Colonel Jessep is due to take up an important post at the National Security Council and it is implied that people in high places want the case settled with the minimum of fuss because of this. However, Galloway successfully argues her point of view to Kaffee after Dawson and Downey state they were ordered by Kendrick to shave Santiago’s head, minutes after Kendrick ordered the platoon not to touch the would-be victim. His death was actually caused when a rag was shoved into his mouth as a gag. Goaded by Galloway and Dawson, Kaffee agrees to be lead counsel for the defense.
Despite initial friction between the two lawyers — since she believes he negotiates plea bargains to avoid having to argue in court, and he believes she is interfering with his handling of the case — their relationship strengthens as the trial progresses, as does Kaffee’s effectiveness as a lawyer. Nonetheless, Kaffee believes the case will be lost. After weeks of intensive preparation, he concludes that “We’re gonna get creamed! ” The prosecution, led by his friend Captain Jack Ross, has a good case since Dawson and Downey do not deny assaulting Santiago, and only reveal details crucial to their defense under intense prompting.
Downey is a simple–minded man who is seemingly unaware of the gravity of his situation; while the more authoritative Dawson is determined to complete the trial rather than dishonor himself and the Marine Corps with a plea bargain. When Kaffee negotiates a deal which could see their sentences reduced from twenty years to just six months, Dawson rejects it as dishonorable, calls Kaffee a coward for suggesting such a deal and intentionally fails to salute him when he leaves the room.
In the course of the trial it is established that Code Reds are standard in Guantanamo Bay as a means of enforcing discipline and getting sloppy Marines into following procedure. Kaffee especially goes after Kendrick, particularly over the fact that he denied Dawson a promotion when the latter helped out a fellow marine who was under what could be seen as a Code Red. Markinson, who is Jessep’s executive officer, has gone absent without leave since the incident, but he resurfaces in Kaffee’s car during the trial.
During a previous meeting with Jessep, Kaffee was told that Santiago was due to be transferred off the base for his own safety, but Markinson now reveals that there was never any intention of transferring Santiago and that transfer orders were created as part of a cover-up long after Santiago’s death. Kaffee is unable to find evidence corroborating these claims and announces his intention to have Markinson testify. Rather than publicly dishonor himself and the Marine Corps, Markinson sends a letter to Santiago’s parents, blaming his own weakness for the loss of their son, dresses in full uniform and commits suicide.
At the same time, evidence comes up which questions whether Kendrick ordered Dawson and Downey to carry out the Code Red, something the defense had always taken for granted. Galloway, however, is convinced that Jessep also ordered the Code Red, and tries to persuade Kaffee to cross-examine him on this point. Kaffee recoils, since there is no proof Jessep was involved and such accusations could result in himself being court-martialed, a move which will ruin his career. After Galloway storms out, Kaffee reflects on his late father with his co-counsel Sam Weinberg.
Weinberg admits that, with the evidence they have, Kaffee’s father would never have called Jessep to the stand, but also says he would rather have the younger Kaffee as lawyer for Dawson and Downey. Weinberg pushes his friend to consider if it is he or Lionel Kaffee who is overseeing the case and Daniel Kaffee finally decides to put Jessep on the stand. In court, Kaffee questions Jessep and produces circumstantial evidence that suggests there was never any intention of transferring Santiago.
When this proves insufficient, Kaffee confronts Jessep regarding the incompatibility of his ordering Santiago’s transfer — ostensibly for his safety from hazing — with his assertion that he ordered that Santiago was not to be touched, and that his orders were always followed. When Kaffee asks Jessep point-blank, “Did you order the Code Red? ” the judge announces that he is in contempt of court, but Jessep cannot resist the challenge. When Kaffee exclaims “I want the truth! ” Jessep emphatically declares, “You can’t handle the truth! in return. Because he defends his country, Colonel Jessep does not see why Kaffee, who has never been on the front line, should even question his methods from “under the blanket of the very freedom I provide”, but in the face of a point-blank question by Kaffee furiously declares that he did in fact order the Code Red (By vociferating “You’re goddamn right I did! ” no less), a pivotal moment in the film. A shocked cessation falls over the court. At the prompting of Kaffee and the Judge, prosecutor Ross places Jessep under arrest.
Dawson and Downey are found not guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, but are found guilty of “conduct unbecoming a United States Marine” (a fictional violation based on conduct unbecoming an officer) and are dishonorably discharged. Downey is confused by the sentence; sure that Jessep’s confession absolves them from blame, but Dawson, after recovering from the shock, points out that they failed to fight for those unable to fight for themselves, like Santiago. As they leave, Kaffee tells Dawson that he doesn’t need to wear a patch on his arm to have honor.
Dawson responds by exchanging salutes with Kaffee. Kaffee admits to Ross to a little bluff which unnerved Jessep enough to cause his downfall. Ross announces that Kendrick will also be arrested. Despite its renown as a courtroom drama, “A Few Good Men” has little esoteric knowledge concerning the law and its constituent benefactors. Instead, like most productions of its type, it instead questions the philosophies held concerning the law, more importantly, what is to be considered moral in the maintaining such order.
This is fleshed out in the verbal bought between Jessep and Kaffee late in the trial. The film does explore and give copious amounts of detail into the proceedings of a Trial by Jury, which is quite impressive in its accuracy in doing so. A few concepts such as a plea bargain, offered to Kaffee by Jack Ross, which is an agreement in which a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge instead of not guilty to a greater one.