“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: Thurs.-Sat. (Feb. 9-11), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Feb. 12), 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
To attend a production of The NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men” at Delgado Community College is to take a step back in time. Yes, it takes one back to the early 1990s, when the kinetic rhythms of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogues and monologues had not yet invaded America by way of movies (“The American President”) or TV shows (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”). The stage and screen versions arrived as a kind of postscript to 1980s Hollywood — in which macho, Reagan-era action thrillers like “Red Dawn” and subtle, pro-military movies like “An Officer and a Gentleman” were juxtaposed with Vietnam War cautionary parables like “Platoon” bemoaning the insanity of war.
But it also feels like going all the way back … to 2016.
As noted a few weeks ago in the preview to the show, Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep’s famous “You can’t handle the truth” monologue provided the rationale for collateral damage; that to defend our country, we need the few, the proud, but also, the strong. The weak must be pushed to the side — even eliminated — to defend our higher ideals. This is not just about thinning the herd. The Marines, as their soldier characters tell us, live by a code: “Unit, corps, God, country.” And when someone breaks that code, they must pay a price, for the good of the country. But Sorkin tells us that there’s such a thing as understanding the differences, the nuances, of a code, especially when improperly applied. We are, he argues, rational, thinking human beings, and we must understand when living a life blindly following orders, we blind ourselves to doing what is right.
All of this stuff has been pondered over the years, but watching the show live onstage for the first time in over a decade — there was a capable mounting of the play at True Brew Theater — conjured fresher images. And part of that is because, intended or unintended, “A Few Good Men” arrived again fresh off a contentious presidential election, and finished up a few weeks into the Trump administration. It’s almost impossible to think about words like strength and weakness and not think about Trump’s motto — “Make America great again” — and wonder at what price, or even in what way, that greatness is supposed to be achieved. In my mind, what Trump is also getting at is strength, which is part of the backbone of the kind of authoritarianism and nationalism Trump is consistently pushing. When forced to criticize Russian President Vladmir Putin, Trump always demurs, preferring instead to compare Putin’s so-called strength as a leader to the perceived weakness of Trump’s more cerebral predecessor, ex-President Barack Obama.
In some ways, I see a lot of Trump in Lt. Col. Jessep, and a little bit of Obama in his underling, Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson. Jessep is hard charging, a win-at-all-costs kind of guy who only respects action and strength, and detests weakness. He’s also a bit caught up in his own vanity, comfortable not just in his moral certitude (as confirmed by his other underling) but also in the knowledge he’s about to move up in the military ranks. The latter, like Obama, is cerebral, reticent, and hesitant to use force.
So what does that make the rest of us, in this play, or in this new world order? Maybe we’re like the two grunts, Dawson and Downey, who did a bad thing, however hesitantly, because they were only following orders, and following a code to its letter or face some version of dishonor. How will we respond as citizens when we’re told to do things in the name of strength, or in the name of the law (our “code”), when it doesn’t seem right to us?
Or maybe we’re more like the callow Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who has at least a smidgeon of rank but who’s also oblivious to the ways of a military that is (as Jessep continually insists) in the business of saving lives? And someone who doesn’t initially appreciate this strict code? And someone who, to better fight this code’s misinterpretations, must work the unused muscles of his own code of ethics.
Living in 2017 and not 1992, I most related to Kaffee’s good friend and defense teammate, Lt. Sam Weinberg (played here by Andrew Larrimer), arguably the moral conscience of the group, and (not to be overlooked) a new father. When guiding a newborn life, a parent appreciates the dangers of this world, and almost immediately develops a pathological wariness of bullies. When asked by Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway why he doesn’t like his clients, Sam retorts, “They beat up on a weakling. The rest is just smoke-filled coffee house crap. They tortured and tormented a weaker kid. They didn’t like him. So, they killed him.” (Galloway’s response about why she likes her clients — in the movie version but not this play’s version — is awesome: “Because they stand on a wall and say, ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.’” It’s as maternal a thought was one could imagine, just applied differently.)
So what, if anything, does “A Few Good Men” tell us about doing the right thing, or even about the moral or ethical value of disobeying orders in the service of a greater good — especially now? While conceding the realities of political theater, we are seeing various forms of disobedience (or “resistance”) in these early, chaotic weeks of the Trump administration. We see it in the firing of then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee) after she instructed the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s immigration-related executive order in court.
We see it in the increasingly popular Twitter feed “Rogue Potus Staff,” which describes itself as “The unofficial resistance team inside the White House.” (This has not yet been confirmed.)
But after watching “A Few Good Men,” I can’t help but wonder where else we might see someone in the government, in the military, even, refusing a direct order they believe to be wrong. I’m reminded of one of the two missile silo operators in another Reagan-era movie, “WarGames,” in which he refuses to follow orders and launch a nuclear strike on Russia because he just can’t believe he’s supposed to do this. (He’s replaced by a computer.) In the real world, how many times can the intelligence community listen to a president demean its work? How many times can the military be asked to execute a possibly poorly planned mission, or see its role on the National Security Council diminished? At what point will good people, with good intentions, be asked to do something they believe in their heart is wrong, and contradict an order? And should they?
President Trump believes he can “Make American great again,” and that he can do it through authoritarian action, and through a strain of nationalism that strikes at the heart of our own rather obvious multicultural and pluralistic identity. And so we might seek wisdom where we can find it. I confess to an affinity for Sorkin’s often-lofty and idealistic prose. In the final scene, Dawson explains to Downey why, even after Jessep’s improbably confession, they’re still found guilty of a lesser charge — “It means we beat the shit out of the wrong guy.”
I wonder if we’ll be coming to that realization, like Dawson and Downey — after the fact, when it’s too late.