‘A Few Good Men' Was Written on Napkins by a Bartender

‘A Few Good Men' Was Written on Napkins by a Bartender

Jack Nicholson (L) and Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men (1992)

Why you should care

Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want to know it all — you need to know it all. And the truth is just about all you can handle.

When a young Aaron Sorkin arrived in Hollywood to start work on the screenplay for his very first feature film — a 1992 adaptation of his award-winning play A Few Good Men — he was ushered into a room with the film’s director, Rob Reiner, and a legion of production executives.

Each of those assembled was eager to “give notes” on the film’s story. So eager, as Sorkin recalls, “Rob got up and said, ‘There’s too many goddamned people in this room,’ and he threw everyone out but me.”

And when a high-ranking Hollywood general like Reiner gives an order like that, you follow it. You follow orders or good ideas die.

The production line starts with a few wadded-up cocktail napkins in the pocket of a 27-year-old bartender.

And what an idea it was. Reiner may have cleared the room for that first meeting with Sorkin, but A Few Good Men was ultimately a team effort, perhaps one of the most remarkable collaborations in film history.

But to really feel entitled to the truth about the film’s near-mythic final courtroom scene, you need to understand where it came from. From its initial conception to the final cut, the scene passed through an assembly line of brilliant minds: from Sorkin to Reiner to screenwriting legend William Goldman to, of course, Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise.

The production line, however, starts with a few wadded-up cocktail napkins in the pocket of a 27-year-old bartender.

Aaron Sorkin was like a lot of other failed-actors-turned-writers in Manhattan: To survive, he slept on friends’ couches, handed out fliers, sold tickets to tourists and even performed singing telegrams. But what he liked most about the job he landed bartending at the Palace Theater was not that it was the closest he’d gotten to performing on Broadway, nor was it the “$19 plus tips” he earned each evening. It was the proximity and time that it afforded him.

Proximity enough to eavesdrop on any number of theater productions and the time to pursue his growing passion for writing. Required to serve drinks only during the “walk-in” before the show and at intermission, Sorkin had loads of spare time to scribble down ideas behind the bar.

Each night, Sorkin would “go home with my pockets filled with cocktail napkins” and then “dump them out” and type them up on a Macintosh 512K that he and friends had pooled their money to buy.

Sorkin composed almost the entire first draft of A Few Good Men — about two Marines accused of killing a member of their platoon — on those napkins. In a tight, rhythmic prose befitting the subject matter, the script focused on a military lawyer’s attempt to defend the two men — dedicated soldiers who refuse to dishonor their unit by revealing that the accidental death resulted from their being ordered to administer a type of military hazing known as a “Code Red.”

A decade before 9/11, the war on terror and the detainees at Gitmo, A Few Good Men eerily presaged the 21st-century tensions between justice and security, including which actions are justified to “save lives” in a dangerous world. Sorkin’s father, brother and sister were all lawyers, and the plot was based on a true “Code Red” episode at Gitmo in which 10 Marines had almost killed a member of their platoon after placing a rag in his mouth and beating him. Sorkin’s sister had served as a JAG counsel for the Marines in the case, the facts of which were so similar to Sorkin’s creation that one of the accused later sued the makers of A Few Good Men — before mysteriously disappearing in 1994.

A FEW GOOD MEN, Jack Nicholson (center), Tom Cruise (right), 1992.

A FEW GOOD MEN, Jack Nicholson (center), Tom Cruise (right), 1992.

Source ©Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection

Still, A Few Good Men, and its climactic final sequence, doesn’t rank with Inherit the Wind or 12 Angry Men as one of cinema’s most compelling legal dramas because of Sorkin alone.

None other than William Goldman — Sorkin’s screenwriting idol and writer of such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men — was called in to revise the script. Goldman’s work may have gone uncredited, but Sorkin credits Goldman with teaching him to “screw the format” and to forget about camera angles or establishing shots, and just focus on connecting with the viewer at an emotional level.

From Rob Reiner, Sorkin would learn how to shoot and enliven large blocks of dialogue, including through the “walk and talk” that Sorkin would later perfect with The West Wing. Reiner’s attention to detail is reflected in the film’s final courtroom confrontation, which he shot multiple times from different angles in order to capture the reactions of the judge and the various lawyers — Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon — to Col. Nathan Jessep’s searing admission on the witness stand that he ordered the Code Red.

Reiner’s multiple shots meant that the actor playing Col. Jessep, screen legend Jack Nicholson, had to deliver his famous testimony repeatedly. But instead of using his off-camera takes to practice and perfect his lines, Nicholson went all in … every time.

As Reiner later recalled, “I say, ‘Jack, you know, it’s … brilliant. Do you want to save it for when we put you on camera?’”

Jack’s reply, according to Reiner (in his best Nicholson impression): “No, Rob, you don’t understaaaand. I loooove to aaaact.”

Nicholson may have the grand soliloquy and the big lines, but it was a 29-year-old Tom Cruise as the lead JAG lawyer, Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who holds the scene, and the film, together. The redemption of the smug and dispassionate Kaffee — for whom four lawyers claim to be the real-life basis — helped Cruise to reassert his own acting credentials by first playing to the cocky, Maverick-type character he had become associated with and then exploding that persona as Kaffee’s true character emerges.

And just as Kaffee rises to the occasion in cross-examining Col. Jessep, Cruise does not wilt in the face of Nicholson’s tour de force, but rises to meet it, if not best it. As a crew member who worked with Cruise observed:

“He will out-everything you. He will outwork you, outthink you, outstunt you and outnice you. If you’re an athletic, 25-year-old production assistant, he will outsprint you in front of the entire crew.”

A Few Good Men would be nominated for four Oscars and five Golden Globe Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and gross over $236 million at the box office.

And more than 20 years later, Sorkin’s cocktail creation still lives on in our own minds, where it just gets better, and better, every time we return to it.

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