Written By Aaron Sorkin
Breakdown by: Megan Janet Turner
A Few Good Men” is the staple of any aspiring screenwriters arsenal when it comes to theme, tone and structure. It has also become the bar where expectations have been set, and not many films can rise above it. With perfectly crafted yet flawed characters, unforgettable plot twists and the single most quotable scene at the finale, there’s no doubt that this film is a treasure.
In this article, I will expose and explain the key elements of structure, tone, genre, theme and character introductions. If these are not to Hollywood standards, your screenplay won’t get past page 1.
From the first rat-a-tat-tat from the snare drums, we’re automatically surrounded with a sense of malevolence and foreboding as Sorkin takes us on the dime tour of Guantanamo Bay. ___________________________________________________________
EXT. A SENTRY TOWER —
— in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere.
Small beams of light coming from lamps attached to the tower cut through the ground mist. We HEAR all the unidentifiable sounds of night in the woods. We also HEAR, very, very faintly, a slow, deliberate drum cadence. And as this starts, we begin to MOVE SLOWLY UP THE TOWER, more becomes visible now:… the sandbags on the ground piled ten-high… the steel, fire escape-type stairway wrapping around the structure and leading to the lookout post, and finally… THE LOOKOUT POST, maybe forty feet off the ground.
Standing the post is the silhouette of A MARINE. He’s holding a rifle and staring straight out.
The drum cadence has been building slightly.
A WIDER SHOT OF THE FENCELINE. And we see by the moonlight that the tall wire-mesh fence winds its way far, far into the distance.
SUBTITLE: UNITED STATES NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY – CUBA.
The world of the story is set immediately, displaying the literal sense of the term “Military precision” right down to the smallest detail. The Marine standing at his post with unflinching will to serve his country… You don’t know whether you should feel safe or nervous.
As Dawson and Downey skulk towards their victim, that nervousness catapults into fear. They move with purpose and determination, willing to do what they need to in order to keep their structured way of life whole.
When Dawson awakens Santiago from his sleep, you know right away that they know each other. They’ve trained together, eaten together, may have even been friends, but none of that matters. The Military matters the most.
INT. A MARINE BARRACKS
We HEAR two pairs of footsteps and then
THE BARRACKS CORRIDOR
Where we see that the footsteps belong to DAWSON and DOWNEY,two young marines who we’ll get to know later. They stop when they get to a certain door. The drum cadence is still growing. DAWSON puts his hand on the doorknob and turns it slowly. He opens the door and they walk into…
INT. SANTIAGO’S ROOM – NIGHT
WILLY SANTIAGO, a young, very slight marine, lies asleep in his bunk.
The first supporting protagonist to be introduced is Joanne Galloway, or Jo as she’s known throughout the film. We meet her on page 3.
As she walks across the courtyard toward the brick building. The WOMAN is JOANNE GALLOWAY, a navy lawyer in her early 30’s. She’s bright, attractive, impulsive, and has a tendency to speak quickly. If she had any friends, they’d call her JO. As she walks, she mutters to herself…
I’m requesting… I’m… Captain,
I’d like to request that I be the
attorney assigned to rep — I’d like
to request that it be myself who is
assigned to represent —
“That it be myself who is assigned
to represent”? …Good, Jo, that’s
Every courtroom drama seems to have a character similar to Jo, but none of them has been able to make her relatable. She’s tenacious but tends to speak before thinking things through, which often gets her into trouble. She’s beautifully described on page 6 by West as “All passion, no street smarts”, which is in great contrast with Kaffee, our hero.
Daniel Kaffee steps in on page 7 with all the grace and charm of someone who’s used to talking his way through life. His petulant wit and boyish charm are an interesting mix and immediately draw us in.
KAFFEE’s in his late 20’s, 15 months out of Harvard Law School, and a brilliant legal mind waiting for a courageous spirit to drive it. He is, at this point in his life, passionate about nothing… except maybe softball.
Kaffee’s character is a perfect juxtaposition against Jo, as he’s afraid to step foot in a courtroom, yet she is desperate to get her foot in the door. Neither character can walk away from a fight, which leads them to butt heads constantly.
Sam Weinberg appears on page 10 as a coolheaded father figure for Kaffee and Jo, which often makes him the referee instead of a paralegal.
A PARALEGAL is handing out folders and some photocopied papers to the LAWYERS.
We might notice that one of the lawyers is Lieutenant Junior Grade SAM WEINBERG. Sam’s serious and studious looking. If he weren’t in uniform, you wouldn’t guess that he was a naval officer.
It’s important to note that all three characters support each other in some way. There is no one among them that doesn’t add something to each scene they’re featured in.
Tone & Genre:
The tone and genre of this film is established quickly and clearly. The term “Code Red” is mentioned by Jo on page 4, leaving us wondering what that is and how it’s crucial to the story.
Dawson and Downey are both recruiting
poster marines and Santiago was known
to be a screw-up. I was thinking
that it sounded an awful lot like a
Jo lets this sink in a moment.
(under his breath)
As for the genre, every single character is dressed in Military uniforms, which is self-explanatory.
The central theme of Honor vs. Corruption comes into play as the two men follow their orders. The line is crossed, but it’s not hard to see how grey it is. Do they follow orders for the sake of their Military careers, or do they disobey to save a man’s life? This theme carries on throughout the film, taking its toll on all the main characters in different ways.
Fear Of Failure is another important theme. Kaffee has never set foot in a courtroom because of his fear of not living up to his father’s standards. Dawson and Downey commit a Code Red out of their fear of not being honorable marines.
Summary: In conclusion, “A Few Good Men” delivers a fast-paced courtroom drama with plot twists that keep you guessing until the credits roll.
Megan is an experienced Vancouver-based screenwriter who has demonstrated her skills in screenwriting, short stories, storytelling, script analysis and proofreading. She is a walking encyclopedia of film trivia and avid gamer who hopes her passions will meld into one cohesive writing career.