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.

You 12 had better settle down

Judge, Judy and Executioner: You 12 had better settle down

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.

'I feel the need... the need for speed! Dammit - that's the wrong movie, isn't it?'

‘I feel the need… the need for speed! Dammit – I’m supposed to want the truth’

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…


12 Angry: 69 %, A Few Good: 31 %


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15 Responses to “12 Angry Men v A Few Good Men”

  1. I’ll be truthful, I haven’t seen either film. But “12 angry men” sounds like it provides neither escapism nor realism. A film that is “just 12 guys in a single room arguing for an hour-an-a-half” is tantamount to horror.

    And no crisp military uniforms or hot characters to distract you – pointless.

    Nah I sustain shouty Cruise moments and gurning Nicholson. Case closed.

  2. I’d leave an insightful comment but you can’t handle the truth!

  3. al (gene pitney wannabe) Says:

    clearly, 12 angry men is the superior film. I am a huge Tom Cruise fan, and Aaron Sorkin singlehandedly created the best tv series of all time, but A Few Good Men pales in comparison with 12 Angry men. Moody, a brilliant natural script, with a moral that doesn’t cramp the film itself, and above all else (what sometimes seems impossible to do in a film) it offers 12 original characters, all of whom are brilliantly portrayed.
    12 angry men reminds us of what it is to be human and forces us to confront our own frailities and prejudices.

  4. The problem with A Few Good Men is that it is American. It features lawyers, full of the good spirit and the vibrant word, charging around the court room, historionics abound, arms waving, passions unrelenting. It’s all drama. No pathos. No timing. No class.

    12 Angry Men suffers similarly. I think I prefer A Few Good Men overall, if only for Gene Hackman.

    But compare with Rumpole of the Bailey. Sardonic, upstanding, still, wearing a wig, cigar ash down the waistcoat, drunk, satiric, rude. He wins hands down. Substitute Tom Cruise or Henry Fonda for Leo McKern and you would have a classic.

  5. Gene hackman, what am I thinking? Too much Chateau Thames Embankment. I meant, of course, Jack Nicholson. Oh and Kevin Bacon.

    Still the point remains.

  6. north briton, your Rumpole references astound me – i had to look up CTE on wikipedia. and although you made a slight error about hackman, you do make a good point: he really should have been in a few good men. and brian cox too. although, in fairness, he was probably making three other films that day

  7. @Sharon “A film that is “just 12 guys in a single room arguing for an hour-an-a-half” is tantamount to horror.”

    That, or about 20% of a day in the Metro newsroom.

    Haven’t seen 12 angry men, sadly, so I can’t contribute to this debate, other than to say that a film without a basketball-playing golden retriever doesn’t cut the mustard.

  8. Both films are shit.

  9. samurai gordon Says:

    Ross (of the Mcg variety) ’tis a fine defence of Aaron Sorkin without actually mentioning Aaron Sorkin. I would say it is miraculous too by being a good enough script to make Tom Cruise actually charming and funny for once, but you might find that blasphemous.

  10. No comparison on these two AT ALL. I understand going for the courtroom comparison, but to have a film where it’s basically twelve people in a room interacting—how many movies can you think of that do that? And besides, a pre-Quincy Jack Klugman gives a really great performance.

  11. 12 Angry Men is the far superior film, no contest, what are you thinking? One movie is a gripping drama with great leads from fonda, cobb and klugman and is possibly the last, great liberal studio movie. 50 years on people still talk about it.
    The other is witless Hollywood hackery involving a big name on his way down, Cruise doing 90 minutes of manic before we realised he wasn’t acting and Demi Moore who is basically there to fuel a few good teen dreams.

  12. No doubt about this one, 12 Angry Hommes all the way.

    McD 1 McG 0

  13. i never saw 12 angry men and all i can remember from A few good men is dawson and downey and code red.

  14. Ryan McG Says:

    Sharon, do yerself a favour and give a couple of hours to both of these. Personally can’t decide over these 2 but some good points made about Kiefer S and the one and only JTW

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