Timecode: 2:00 – 5:23
SMASH CUT TO:
EXT. THE WASHINGTON NAVY YARD – DAY
…and the drum cadence we’ve been hearing has turned into Semper Fidelis and it’s coming from THE U.S. MARINE CORPS BAND, a sight to behold in their red & gold uniforms and polished silver & brass.
Semper fidelis, a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “always loyal”, doubles as both the motto of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and the underlying theme of A Few Good Men (AFGM). If there’s a central dramatic question explored in the film it’s this: is there a point at which loyalty becomes a vice rather than a virtue? And if so, where should we draw the line?
Before that question is ever put in the mouth of a character (unless, of course, you count the rag stuffed down Santiago’s throat), it’s expressed visually with the smash cut that kicks off our opening credit sequence. If you’re watching the movie for the first time, the obvious question on the heels of Santiago getting assaulted is, “why would those guys attack one of their own like that?” The answer, it seems is…
…America (fuck yeah!) Well, not exactly. You’re gonna have to go deeper than that.
That proud and powerful fanfare you hear is the opening of John Philip Sousa¹’s “Semper Fidelis” — the official march of the USMC being played by the official USMC band. And if you think that band looks stately and self-possessed wait ‘til you get a load of these guys:
The 24 men who comprise the Corps’ Silent Drill Platoon are meant to “exemplify the discipline and professionalism associated with the USMC.” Or put another way: these guys don’t fuck around, alright? I still remember seeing a performance of theirs at halftime of a Forty Niners’ game I went to as a kid. As artful as the platoon’s synchronized movements look on camera, they’re even more breath-taking in person (especially if you’re nine years old and the coolest thing you’ve ever seen during a halftime show up to that point is this).
If you piece it all together (the flag, the band, the flawless execution of the drill team), the answer to the question (“why would those guys attack one of their own like that?”) becomes obvious: “because there’s a hell of a lot more that goes into being a Marine than you could possibly realize, dummy².”
What’s refreshing about this symbolic approach is that the answer — and by proxy, the movie’s theme — is implicit within the imagery rather than spoon-fed to us in some bombastic, on-the-nose, opening monologue. I mention this, because if Aaron Sorkin has a weakness as a writer³, it’s that he’s susceptible to bombastic, on-the-nose monologues. Like, I don’t know, this one for example:
It’s why, as much as I’ve enjoyed Sorkin’s work in television over the years, I’ve always preferred his movies (whether it’s AFGM, The Social Network, Moneyball, et al.) Working in film forces him to collaborate with an equally gifted artist (i.e. the director), who can — among other things — help to make the story-telling more visual and nuanced. Rob Reiner certainly does just that in this opening sequence, and he’ll continue to throughout the film (even as Sorkin’s words begin to take center stage).
I suppose the ultimate irony here is that in a movie best known for its stirring speeches and crackling dialogue, we’re almost five-and-a-half minutes into its run-time, and the first line still hasn’t been spoken. For that, you’ll just have to come back next week…