12 Angry Men v A Few Good Men
Courtroom dramas. They happen in courtrooms and they are dramatic. In Court 1, a teenager stands accused of killing his father, while over in Court 2, two marines are charged with the murder of a third (a colleague, not the fraction). So how many men must a road walk down before he becomes a road? 12 angry ones? A few good ones? Read the arguments and decide. Can you handle the truth?
Ross McD: 12 Angry Men
I’m just saying it’s possible…
Film can be a great form of escapism. It can take you from the Moon to Mordor, from Hell to Hoth, from Narnia to Neverland, from Jurassic Park to John Malkovich’s head. But sometimes we want a bit of realism. And if you are settling down to a courtroom drama, that is one of those times.
If you have ever had the pleasure of going to court, and even if you haven’t, you’ll know that what happens in A Few Good Men does not happen in reality. Lawyers don’t scream ‘Objection!’ Judges don’t shout ‘Overruled!’ and neither do they bellow ‘Sustained!’ These impassioned and noble spiels that legal types seem to pull out of mid-air – they just don’t occur in real life. Neither do lawyers go from complete noob to legal ace in the space of a single case.
And this is where 12 Angry Men shines – it’s completely believable. It’s just 12 guys in a single room arguing for an hour-an-a-half. The entire film – besides a couple of brief scenes in an adjacent washroom and outside the court at the end – is shot in one small jury room. There are no crisp military uniforms or impossibly hot peripheral characters to distract you. The 12 jurors have such diverse and interesting characteristics it is impossible to confuse them, even though they are only identifiable by their numbers.
But it’s one character in particular who makes this film outstanding: Henry Fonda’s Juror No 8. His absolute coolness under the heated stares of 11 opposed jury members makes the Fonze look like Screech. His reasonable doubt argument never comes across like it’s for attention or just to be different; he never exudes any smugness when he wins people over to his side; he never repays the peer pressure on the gradually shrinking guilty voters and he never even admits he votes innocent just to get a free night’s stay in a hotel à la Homer Simpson.
Each argument in the film is engrossing, as you find yourself slowly, even reluctantly, changing your opinion of this defendant you have never met (yet ashamedly have made a judgement on too). The film’s best scene comes when one of the more level-headed jurors refuses to be moved because of the defendant’s weak testimony that on the night in question he lost the murder weapon: a unique, ornate flick-knife. Like a professional poker player, #8 lets him think he has the room won over until BAM! He lays down his four aces and shakes the room to its core – but somehow doesn’t express the smug look us mere mortals could in no way have resisted:
The only innaccuracy in this film is its name – Juror No 8 never actually gets angry. Though he must’ve got a little cross when he realised he was stuck in a room with 11 prejudiced conclusion-jumpers. Meanwhile, over in fantasy court theatre, who are the few good men of the title? It’s not the defendants, ’cause they’re killers. It’s not the victim, he was a dick. It’s not Tom Cruise’s character, he’s a lazy waster (unconvincing character development aside). It’s not Jack Nicholson, he’s a killer too. And it’s not Demi Moore, ’cause she’s, well, not a man. Never mind a few – there isn’t one good man in this film. What a croc.
Ross McG: A Few Good Men
You want me on that wall…
12 Angry Men is one of the all-time great films, but if you like your courtroom dramas to actually move into the courtroom, it will always disappoint. Yet say the words ‘court’ and ‘movie’ to anyone and they will bark back five words: ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ When it comes to legal standoffs, A Few Good Men is the daddy of them all, the Johnnie Cochran of films – loud, brash and spectacular entertainment.
It is slightly unfortunate that the movie is best remembered for Jack Nicholson’s celebrated outburst, yet that scene still retains its power. We all remember When Harry Met Sally for Meg Ryan’s culinary orgasm – but that doesn’t mean the rest of the film isn’t brilliant too.
The fact is A Few Good Men’s final showdown would have little resonance were it not for an impeccable build-up. While 12 Angry Men’s claustrophobia can at times be exhausting, A Few Good Men – like any accomplished lawyer – goes into court completely prepared, having done its groundwork away from the halls of justice.
Forget Nicholson and Tom Cruise’s face-off at the finale – their head-to-head over breakfast at Guantanamo Bay is much more unsettling. Watching Cruise’s character, the up-until-then cocksure Lt Daniel Kaffee – getting verbally spanked by The Jack is funny and tense all at once. Colonel Nathan Jessep is destined to go down with RP McMurphy, Jack Torrance and The Joker among Nicholson’s all-time great roles. He is a snarling monster who repulses us, yet when his young adversary puts him away you can’t help agreeing with Jessep when he spits: ‘All you did was weaken a country today, Kaffee.’ 12 Angry Men simply cannot compete with this kind of depth. While compelling drama, all we learn about Henry Fonda’s character is that essentially he is a good man.
By all accounts Nicholson’s performance was generous as well – he went through his famously eruptive speech several times off-camera to assist the other actors. Not that they needed much help. A Few Good Men has a cast to get court marshalled for – there is super support from Kevin Bacon, a never-better Kiefer Sutherland and the legendary JT Walsh. Cruise’s performance is far from his best work – he can play the cocky hotshot in his sleep – but the audience roots for him all the way. His (unscripted) Nicholson impression is also a treat. Heck, I’d want him as my lawyer.
Watching Cruise and Nicholson go toe-to-toe remains one of the most exhilarating sights in cinema, and if scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin’s words have been much parodied, it is only because they were so hard-hitting to begin with.
12 Angry Men and A Few Good Men share much in common. Both were stage plays before they hit the big screen and both contain a lot of men shouting at one another. However, in A Few Good Men they shout just that little bit louder. Let’s hope you can handle the truth…
VOTING CLOSED… RESULT:
12 Angry: 69 %, A Few Good: 31 %
ANGRY JUDGED THE BEST!