Home > Reviews > A FEW GOOD MEN – Marc Shaiman

A FEW GOOD MEN – Marc Shaiman

November 23, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I have always viewed A Few Good Men as one of the best legal drama-thrillers of the 1990s. It’s a richly detailed, wonderfully written, dazzlingly acted exposé of a part of the US military, based on the acclaimed stage play by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Rob Reiner. The film stars Tom Cruise at the height of his movie star fame, playing Daniel Kaffee, a military lawyer in the US Navy, whose reputation for juvenile antics and easy plea bargaining has made him something of a joke among his peers. Things change for Kaffee when he is hired to defend two Marines accused of killing a fellow soldier on the base at Guantanamo Bay. Kaffee’s appointment angers his reluctant co-counsel, Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore), who thinks that there is more to the case than meets the eye, and is concerned that Kaffee’s blasé approach will derail the defense. As they dig more deeply into the circumstances surrounding the marine’s death, they find themselves at loggerheads with Nathan Jessup (a phenomenal Jack Nicholson), the colonel in charge of the Guantanamo unit, a feared and respected career soldier with unorthodox methods of maintaining discipline.

The film has an astonishing cast supporting Cruise, Moore, and Nicholson – Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Pollak, Wolfgang Bodison and James Marshall as the Marines on trial – and they all give impeccable performances. The verbal courtroom sparring between Cruise and Nicholson is especially electric, and although the culmination of their battle (the “you can’t handle the truth” monologue) is now so famous it has passed into cliché, at the time it was a showstopping moment of virtuoso acting by performers at the peak of their game. I also love how there are so many moral gray areas in the story: Kaffee and Galloway are not entirely right, Jessup is not entirely wrong, and the accused marines are both guilty and innocent, depending on your point of view. It’s a testament to the superb writing that the film continues to ask probing questions about military discipline, even to this day. The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Nicholson, but was overwhelmed by Clint Eastwood’s all-conquering western Unforgiven.

The score for A Few Good Men is by composer Marc Shaiman, who worked with director Reiner previously on his films When Harry Met Sally in 1989 and Misery in 1990. This score was written during the period in Shaiman’s career when I personally feel he was at his most creative and interesting; he was scoring several major studio films a year, across multiple different genres, with each one offering a new facet to his personality – in 1992, in addition to A Few Good Men, he scored a musical comedy (Sister Act), and a comedy drama (Mr. Saturday Night), having previously written such varied scores as City Slickers, Scenes from a Mall, and The Addams Family. A Few Good Men is one of the most serious scores of his early career, and one of the most unexpected in terms of approach – it’s a combination of low-key orchestral drama, contemporary electronica, and light jazz, which I thoroughly enjoy.

The opening cue, “Code Red,” is an dark piece of mood-setting drama, low electronic pulses, drum machine percussion, and a tinkling keyboard texture that reminds me very much of the sort of music people like John Williams and James Horner were writing for courtroom thrillers at the time – think scores like Presumed Innocent, Class Action, and others. It’s a superb way to set the scene, giving the pivotal murder of Private William Santiago an appropriate sense of unease.

The music for Tom Cruise’s character, “Kaffee,” initially has a sort of world-weary resignation to it, moody string and piano textures, illustrating how – even at his comparatively early age – he is jaded and cynical about his career and the military as a whole. However, the second half of the cue is more optimistic and hopeful, warm horns, affirmative strings, and lively, inquisitive keyboard textures; this development in the music for Kaffee illustrates the other side of his personality, and the inspiration that strikes him when he is presented with the opportunity to genuinely do something good and meaningful.

The melodic, smoothly confident keyboard textures continue on through the subsequent “Facts and Figures,” and here they combine with a jazzy muted saxophone, to really hammer home the early 1990s sound. This music tends to occur throughout the score as Kaffee, Galloway, and Kevin Pollak’s character Weinberg use their intellects and deductive reasoning to build the case – montages of them poring over paperwork, huddled in discussion, planning their strategy – and eventually coalesces into what I’m calling the Investigation Motif.

“Guantanamo Bay” is the music that accompanies the first meeting between Kaffee and Jessup on base, and initially there is a warmly patriotic sense of trust and camaraderie, conveyed with horns and appealing strings, but this soon becomes slightly more menacing as Jessup’s arrogant personality is revealed; the elegiac solo trumpet line, redolent of militaristic honor, is defaced with dark, vaguely sinister writing for strings, percussion, and eerie electronic textures, cleverly planting seeds of doubt in the mind of the viewer (and listener) as to Jessup’s true nature, and his complicity in the events at hand. The final flourish – which combines the ‘investigation motif’ with the broader orchestra – at times has a hint of Randy Edelman to it, especially the dramatic parts of scores like Come See the Paradise.

“Plea Bargain” explores further the keyboard textures and the smooth jazz of the Investigation Motif, but also presents yet another new motif: a more wholesome, almost innocent woodwind idea that’s related to the character of Private Louden Downey, one of the defendants, whose wide-eyed and naïve demeanor elicits an almost motherly response from Demi Moore’s Galloway. There is a sense of impending fate in “Trial and Error,” which this time blends the keyboard textures with the dark electronic pulses of the Code Red motif, and eventually becomes quite threateningly dramatic, as one of the defense’s star witnesses shockingly commits suicide before he can testify.

“Pep Talk” is the closest the score has to a love theme, and represents the increasingly close relationship between Kaffee and Galloway, which never becomes romantic, but instead shows a developing appreciation and professional respect for each other. Shaiman’s writing here – delicate woodwinds, gentle pianos, and warm, inviting strings – insinuates that there could be a romantic spark between them, but it never comes to fruition. This is actually one of the best things about the film – the two sex symbol leads never compromise their integrity like that – but Shaiman’s music for them is nevertheless filled with a closeness and intimacy. The lyrical woodwind motif that emerges in the final third of the cue eventually comes to represent the positive outcome of the trial, and plays a major part in the film’s finale.

The final cue, “Honor,” takes several of the score’s main ideas – the keyboard textures, the investigation motif, the military trumpet, the trial motif – and blends them together in a satisfying 4-minute coda to the score which offers a gamut of emotional resolutions, the most poignant of which is the acknowledgement that the other defendant, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson, shows in how he comes to admire and respect Kaffee. When Kaffee tells him that ‘you don’t need to wear a badge on your arm to have honor’ the swell of the music that accompanies the line is emotionally satisfying without being mawkish or manipulative, and ends the score on a high.

The short soundtrack album is rounded out by performances of two classic military marches by composer John Philip Sousa: “Semper Fidelis,” the official march of the United States Marine Corps, and “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the official National March of the United States of America as a whole. There’s also one song, Lieber & Stoller’s classic “Hound Dog,” performed by Big Mama Thornton.

My view of the music in A Few Good Men is probably positively skewed by how much I like the film itself, but even with that in mind, I still feel that this remains one of Marc Shaiman’s most successful dramatic efforts. The music is very much rooted in its time period – the keyboard textures and prominent saxophones couldn’t be more evocative of the early 1990s if they were wearing parachute pants and dancing to Boyz II Men – and anyone who has an aversion to that sound may find large parts of it excruciatingly dated, but I personally have never felt this. To me, the combination of smooth electronica and light jazz with flavors of military pageantry and orchestral drama is pitched just right, and supports the film perfectly without ever overshadowing – or, worse, trivializing – the performances, the writing, or the story. With all his success in comedy and on Broadway, people tend to forget just what a sophisticated, tasteful dramatic composer Shaiman can be when given the right canvas, and A Few Good Men is an excellent example of exactly that.

Buy the A Few Good Men soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Code Red/Semper Fidelis (written by John Philip Sousa) (2:12)
  • Kaffee (2:16)
  • Facts and Figures (1:56)
  • Guantanamo Bay (2:48)
  • Hound Dog (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, performed by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton) (2:51)
  • Plea Bargain (2:18)
  • Trial and Error (3:33)
  • Pep Talk (3:17)
  • Honor (3:48)
  • Stars and Stripes Forever (written by John Philip Sousa) (2:07)

Running Time: 27 minutes 06 seconds

Columbia Records 4729260-2 (1992)

Music composed by Marc Shaiman. Conducted by Artie Kane. Orchestrations by Mark McKenzie and Hummie Mann. Recorded and mixed by Joel Moss. Edited by Curtis Roush. Album produced by Marc Shaiman.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: