Kaffee: Colonel Jessep, did you order the Code Red?
Judge Randolph: You don't have to answer that question!
Col. Jessup: I'll answer the question!
Col. Jessup [to Kaffee]: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I'm entitled to.
Col. Jessup: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the TRUTH!
Col. Jessup: You can't handle the truth!
That's the most famous scene, obviously. But the build-up - it's a long movie - and even the aftermath shows some seriously deep consideration of one of the key questions in legal military behaviour: the so-called defence of superior orders, or more accurately the fact that there is no such defence. To me the film itself isn't so much about the characters - while they are beautifully portrayed by some of the absolute leading actors of the era (and Kevin Bacon), and while the characters show more depth than just a straightforward portrayal of various military stereotypes, the key question isn't whether Jessup ordered the Code Red (we know he probably did) or even whether Kaffee can get him to admit to it in court (although that's obviously where the dramatic tension reaches crescendo), the point is that even after all that is over, Kaffee's clients - Downey and Dawson, the two who performed the action itself - are STILL guilty of having performed it. As Dawson says to Downey right afterwards:
Downey: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!
Dawson: Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy.
The issue first really came to light in the Nuremberg trials following the second World War, where German officers stood trial but pleaded as their defence that they were acting under orders from a superior officer, and could not refuse. After the first trial of a general who used this defence, a precedent was set that such a defence was not acceptable as an excuse for committing atrocities. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (December 1948) also enshrined the same principle. Which all sounds fair enough.
But what the film does here is expose the issues that arise from this - very noticeably NOT taking a side one way or the other - but simply saying that this is a complex problem without an elegant solution. Yes, Downey and Dawson were under superior orders and had, in their immediate situation (as the film makes clear) NO way to disobey orders, but the fact is they did perform the criminal act in itself. They were put in an impossible situation and had to bear the consequences of it, however fair or unfair it might be. The partial solution - as shown by the film - is to follow the trail of the superior orders to find the person who initially GAVE that order, and that person also therefore bears guilt, and in some cases (depending on the severity of the case usually) there might be a lessening of the sentence for those who followed the order.
But it's clearly a problem without an obvious solution. And 'A Few Good Men' exposes that, through a dramatic, well-portrayed sequence and character set, and leads you to ask the core question: what SHOULD have happened to Downey and Dawson in the aftermath of the truth coming out? Because frankly, the law simply doesn't know what to do.
It can't handle the truth.