Michael Aaron Santos, “A Few Good Men” and how to handle the truth

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“A FEW GOOD MEN”
WHAT: The NOLA Project presents Aaron Sorkin’s debut stage work, a military courtroom drama; Jason Kirkpatrick directs A.J. Allegra, Cecile Monteyne, Michael Aaron Santos and others
WHEN: Jan. 26-Feb. 12; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
WHERE: Timothy K. Baker Theatre, Delgado Community College
TICKETS: $30 (general admission), $20 (NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members, $24 (military & veterans: $24, $10 (Delgado students)
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives … You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!”

Michael Aaron Santos has the juiciest monologue fueled by the sharpest rebuke of the 2016-2017 New Orleans theater season. Almost by extension, then, he carries the heaviest burden as well, given its history. Like so many stage moments, it’s from a movie that the monologue gets its currency, with Jack Nicholson solidifying its place in cinema history as a part of Rob Reiner’s Academy Award-winning 1992 film adaptation of “A Few Good Men.”

And like so many others, the stage version is a different animal, as The NOLA Project hopes to prove this weekend when it opens the military drama at Delgado Community College. (The premiere is Thursday, Jan. 26.) Santos, a NOLA Project ensemble member, will play Col. Nathan Jessup opposite Artistic Director A.J. Allegra as Lt. Daniel Kaffee and Cecile Monteyne as Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway.

The play follows the defense by a callow Naval attorney of two Marines accused of murdering a fellow Marine while stationed at Guantanamo Bay, and the suspicion that the trial is part of a cover-up to protect Jessup, a rising star in the military. Kaffee must wrestle with one of the other members of his legal team, Galloway, who, along with the memory of his famous father, serve as his conscience.

There’s no problem with Jessup’s conscience, who sees the late Marine as collateral damage in a continual war to protect his country. The “You can’t handle the truth” serves to explains Jessup’s motivations and actions, which, in the hands of the legendary Nicholson, are as wrongheaded as they are calculated.

Santos is a study in contrasts to Nicholson; Santos is tall and lanky, where Nicholson was short and stocky. In the rehearsal I got to witness earlier in the week, Santos offers his own version of Jessup, foul-mouthed but charming but almost heartfelt in his self-defense. Santos is well aware of the ground he’s covering here.

“When you break it down, you kind of have this image of it from the movie,” Santos said during a break, as captured in the video posted here. “But then you try to learn the monologue and looking at each sentence and each phrase in there, and applying meaning in it. One that struck me is the irony in it — that here is someone who is speaking so vehemently and passionately about something he believes in. And he even calls Kaffee blind.

“But he’s sort of blinded by his own sense of the truth, his own sense of the code that can’t be broken, or that is the right path, so to speak. He has found the truth, the right path in life, and everybody else needs to get in line and follow him, or at least get out of the way. I find a little bit of sympathy towards him … .”

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A.J. Allegra and Cecile Monteyne. (Photo by John Barrois)

Needless to say, Santos will be working slightly against the legacy of one of Nicholson’s career-defining roles — and an Academy Award-nominated one, at that. In interviews, both director Rob Reiner and Tom Cruise spoke of Nicholson’s commitment to the role. Nicholson stuck around the set after he’d shot the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue, happy to repeat the line some 40-50 times while they filmed different reaction shots.

“We spent the entire day just shooting that speech,” Sorkin said on the Jimmy Kimmel show. “There came a time when he didn’t need to be there anymore because we’re doing coverage of other people. The director Rob Reiner said, ‘Jack you don’t have to keep doing this three-page speech.’ He said, ‘Nah, I just love to act,’ and he kept doing it all day and all night.

“There’s nothing like having your first movie experience be with Jack Nicholson.”

Cruise, who spent the first half of his career seeking out roles set opposite some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, marveled at his technique: Playing the scene out, Col. Jessup as a written character is overpowering, so Jack needed to give him that power,” he told GQ magazine’s David Bailey. “But he understands the camera in such a manner that the power had to come from stillness. I could see the motions becoming less and less.”

So much about “A Few Good Men” is about the lines we draw as we try balance our duties to uniform, country and our own, sometimes-elusive sense of right and wrong. The defense’s main argument is one that has been heard over the years, and resonates in everything from the Holocaust to Vietnam War: They were only following orders.

Counter-balancing that is Aaron Sorkin’s time-honored examination smart professional men at work, and how the professional space becomes intertwined with their own certitude. In a New Yorker essay that serves as a more modern critique of Sorkin’s more recent work (and actions outside that work), writer Nathan Heller perfectly encapsulates Sorkin’s views on whether the ends justify the means, and keys in on the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue:

That it has become perhaps the best-known paragraph of his career is unfair … it is often taken as realpolitik fact. Though Jessup is a villain, after all, he acknowledges his ugly amorality. He believes instead in the essential righteousness of what he does, the greater good of his hard, unrelenting work. This willingness to ride over small decencies for a big cause is a regular theme in Sorkin’s writing, from “The West Wing” to “The Social Network” (tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”), and it underscores a basic tenet of the universe he conjures: that messiness of process can bear majestic results.

Heller comes back to Sorkin’s career later in the piece, concluding:

Onscreen, repeatedly, he’s led us through the boiler room of Camelot: here are the young, fast-talking, best-and-brightest types, perennially at one another’s throats, maybe a little Machiavellian, but still good. Their hearts are in the right place—that’s the difference between these people and the bad guys—and they’re looking out for normal folks like you. Sorkin is a creative child of the eighties, which is to say that he came of age at a moment when the possibilities of institutional ascent, governmental and otherwise, were being remade after a period of shame and disappointment. He’s the liberal answer to Tom Clancy, celebrating the hidden mechanics of power not as a source of perfidy but as a site of grace.

Santos’ sympathy for Jessup lies in Sorkin’s consistent theme that men of purported valor believe they’re doing the right thing. Indeed, one of the best lines of the monologue is inspired by the notion that the older, wiser, battle-tested Jessup sees through Kaffee’s inexperience and flippant nature: “[D]eep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline.”

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(Photo by John Barrois)

As someone who’s developed closer personal relationships with those in the military after the movie’s 1992 release (including my own brother and sister-in-law in the process of becoming colonels themselves), I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for that contrast. Jessup’s saying, in part, that his strength must stand in sharper contrast to us weaker civilians — that, after failed misadventures in Korea and Vietnam, we don’t have the stomach for war even when it’s necessary. Not because we’re pacifists, necessarily; because we don’t have the moral courage, but we’re happy to let others shoulder this heavy burden and mock them as they do it.

As Santos notes, “The one line that he repeats throughout the play is saving lives, the phrase of ‘saving lives.’ I think that’s very important to him. But it’s the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, sometimes.”

Perhaps Jessup, as Santos muses, is a relic who, like George “Blood and Guts” Patton before him, had no problem with the notion of cannon fodder.

“I told (director Jason Kirkpatrick) from the very beginning, he reminds me of a Spartan warrior dropped in the middle of an Athenean assembly,” Santos says. “There’s just this culture divide that is going to take years of working through it to get anywhere with it. Two cultures that are going to have generational gaps and slowly hopefully come to some kind of co-exist.”

With that kind of insight, it’s pretty safe to say that, as he approaches Thursday’s curtain call, and a chance to face a major legacy, Michael Aaron Santos is ready to handle the truth.

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2 thoughts on “Michael Aaron Santos, “A Few Good Men” and how to handle the truth

  1. Pingback: Can watching The NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men” help make America great again? | PopSmart NOLA

  2. Pingback: “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM), Ep. 14: Michael Aaron Santos on “A Few Good Men,” Kathy Randels & Sean LaRocca sing, Damien Moses on “Jelly’s Last Jam,” and Alex Rawls on Jazz Fest | PopSmart NOLA

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