An unnatural death in a military base in Cuba. Two marines are accused. They claim to be innocent, having only carried out their orders. Good guys want to investigate. Bad guys resist. Court-room drama. Good guys win. Bad guys go to jail. The two accused get to go home – though that’s not what they wanted to do in the first place.
Ordinary story-line, but engrossing presentation. This movie won an Oscar nomination for, among others, the best picture. So what makes this movie special?
First and foremost, it is amazing to see so many powerful characters in a single movie. Movies could be made with almost any of the main characters (except probably that of Lt. Col. Markinson) as protagonist. Col. Jessep, Lt. Kendrick, deceased William Santiago, Capt. Jack Ross. Even Judge Randolph. Almost any one. The director brilliantly portrays the characters on the other side of the law as not evil, but as leaders with some limitations. And they end up with a few sympathies too.
Secondly, performances by the star-studded cast are so powerful that you start to connect more with the characters than the stars. And that does not happen in every movie. No discussion on the movie would be possible without a reference to Jack Nicholson and his performance. Very few performances in movie history would match Jack Nicholson’s powerful portrayal of Col Nathan Jessep. Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, a mellowed Kevin Pollok – all perform their part. And just for the record, Cuba Gooding Jr. too appears in a cameo.
Thirdly, while the movie did not fetch its director an Oscar nomination, it is hard to overlook his work. No detail is wasted. The movie is full of powerful sequences, woven together admirably. While the two sequences featuring Jack Nicholson, one at the beginning and the other towards the end of the movie, are often discussed a lot, they are by no means the only ones where the director stands out. Amongst the various surprises the director throws, none big or subtle than the introduction of Aunt Ginny. Almost everyone would be as surprised as Kaffee is, when Aunt Ginny comes on-screen for the first time. And just when you thought that the director could relax now, having done a good job, her retort to Kaffee’s observation makes you take notice again.
While watching the movie repeatedly over the years, I have often wondered what else they could have tried to ensure an Academy Award for the best picture. Some random thoughts were try replacing Tom Cruise and Demi Moore with Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon. That’s nothing to take anything away from Cruise and Moore. Tom Cruise overcomes his boyish looks and reputation to make an impression. But that doesn’t prevent me from wondering if the Academy would have perceived it differently, if it had been portrayed by Hanks.
All-in-all, a powerful entertainer and a must watch.