Monday, June 6, 2011

The Good Woman of A Few Good Men

This weekend, I revisited Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (I was 12 when it first came out and probably viewed it once a few years later as a teenager). I am planning to use the film to spur discussion on the contemporary treatment of themes like justice, law, truth, leadership, etc. that my Honors humanities students will also discover in Sophocles’s tragedies from the fifth century BCE. It will work just fine to do that, I think, and, as an added bonus, it will help us to discuss the role of women in contemporary “tragedy” in comparison to the female figures, such as the title characters of Antigone and Electra, that we find in Greek drama. Indeed, this film casts women—in a military setting and in the 1980s, at least—similarly to how Sophocles casts them in these two plays, in static roles that function to support the development of male leaders and benefit the state at large.

I was surprised to find in LCDR Joanne (not insignificantly nicknamed Jo) Galloway, the only lead female character in the film, a stereotypically female lack of self-confidence and an equally stereotypical willingness to “nurture” her male colleague, LTJG Daniel Kaffee, as well as his scapegoated young clients, Pfc. Louden Downey and LCpl. Harold Dawson, from behind the scenes. As Galloway, Demi Moore disappoints. This is certainly not the Demi Moore of G.I. Jane or even Disclosure. She is first introduced muttering to herself as she prepares to request that her male superiors give her the Downey and Dawson case. She botches the request despite her preparation and is then ordered from the room so that the two men present can “talk behind [her] back.” When they call her back in, they of course announce that Downey and Dawson will be appointed alternative counsel. The defense of the two young Marines ultimately lands in the lap of the goof-off Kaffee, who is more interested in winning inter-unit baseball and basketball scrimmages than of pursuing the truth in the military investigation.

Galloway accepts Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) as lead counsel on the case, but as an officer in Internal Affairs, she is able to keep a close eye on him. She ends up joining his defense team and helping him to win the case and, thereby, develop into the lawyer he was meant to be, a man who finally decides to fulfill the patrilineal legacy left by his attorney father and who ultimately proves his worth as an officer in the Navy. Indeed, despite her constant spurring on of Kaffee and her invaluable work on the case, it is not Galloway who is recognized by a salute at the end of the movie—and thus fully indoctrinated as one of “a few good men”—but Kaffee. Galloway stands behind the male lawyer, happy to have helped.

Sure, this film does at least partially admit to the discrimination that Galloway faces in the military, as Kaffee implies at one point that she has had to prove herself at every turn because she is a woman and, more obviously, in the scene in which Col. Nathan Jessep (played by a crotchety Jack Nicholson) crudely suggests that the only value that women—and especially high-ranking women—bring to the military is their ability to sexually arouse and satisfy their male colleagues. In the face of Jessep’s sexual harassment, Galloway stands her ground, refusing to let the corporal off the hook simply because he has succeeded in debasing her in front of a circle of other men. But Jessep is the bad guy anyway; his abuse of Galloway is easy to write off as just another demonstration of his tyrannical personality. And when she helps to finally put him away, the implication is that not only is the military now freer of the abuse of power but also of sexual discrimination—the later part of which is simply not borne out in that ending salute.

Like Antigone, who is executed in order to help define the legal rights of (male) individuals within a state, and Electra, who temporarily steps outside of the bounds of femininity to help restore a rightful (male) leader, Jo Galloway quietly makes the world a better place from a position of clear social inferiority.