By Brian C. Mullen
Okay, we didn’t actually have dinner. I had some potato chips and bottled water, though. I don’t think he was eating anything during our conversation. Well, okay, technically it wasn’t a conversation. It was more like a lecture. Well, let’s just call it what it was…
A running commentary.
A director’s commentary, on one of my favorite movies I own: A Few Good Men (directed by Rob Reiner).
I LOVE listening to director’s commentaries during movies. Sometimes I like them more than the actual movies because that is where you really learn storytelling and get insights into people’s minds and thought processes.
Rob Reiner’s commentary on A Few Good Men, which I literally just watched/listened to before typing this blog is not what I would call a model commentary: there are large pauses where he doesn’t speak – just watching the movie alongside me – and there are many places where the subject matter is more of a reminiscing, but even those are interesting. But the story-telling information, well, let me tell you…
If you haven’t seen the movie, I hope to not spoil much, but I do ask you to watch the film for the story premise. But let me tell you that any one else, myself included, would call it a military courtroom drama. But Rob Reiner made me see it as a coming of age story.
Our first introduction to Tom Cruise’s character (Kaffee from here on) is him plea-bargaining another case while practicing softball. We see that he’s very good at it and learn that he’s successfully plea-bargained 44 cases in 9 months. This is his expertise. We also learn that his father, now deceased, was a tremendously good trial lawyer – and that Kaffee may fear trials because of that. He tries every which way to plea bargain his way out of this current trial only to be forced by those involved to take it to trial. He even considers dropping the case. But after words are said and he gets a good look at himself by observing others (i.e. overhearing a lawyer in a bar bragging about a maneuver very similar to Kaffee’s earlier one) he decides to try to make his dad proud and embraces the trial.
And embrace it he and his colleagues do. They make a few minor mistakes here and there, but they go at it with everything only to meet obstacle after obstacle and soon some of the mistakes get much bigger. And Kaffee, after a booze-augmented argument, begins to see the poor choice he has made: he has tried to be like his father. He needs to be himself. And he takes a huge gamble – one that his father would not approve of.
The consequences of this gamble, should he fail, are huge (court-martial) and for a moment it looks like he isn’t going to succeed. But he commits and goes all-in to the gamble. And he achieves a victory – sort of. The trial is decided better than the plea-bargain would have gotten him but less than an A+ (his clients are found guilty on one of three counts – ironically the only one that mattered to his clients – forcing them to the end of their own character arc as well).
As Rob Reiner saw it, Kaffee went from hiding in his father’s shadow to finding and embracing his true self. A coming of age story. Hidden within a military courtroom drama. Who’d a thunk it?
It’s easy to be blind to the heart of a story with all the distractions that are thrown at an audience like plot twists, hidden clues and overlooked facts coming back to bite, lawyerly chess-moves, emotional monologues, and especially Jack Nicholson’s commanding presence. But inserted neatly, maybe even seamlessly, is a simple, by-the-book storyline.
And that’s what I need to remember every time I sit down to write.