Favorite Fictional Characters, #26: Lt. Daniel Kaffee
It's become easy in recent years to dismiss Tom Cruise, to reduce him to the punchline of a Scientology joke, or a couch-jumping sketch. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s there wasn't a more bankable movie star on the planet, and some of his work from those years was remarkable. In 1992, at the height of his powers, he had the good fortune to work with brilliant writer Aaron Sorkin, bringing the role of Lt. (Junior Grade) Daniel Kaffee from stage to screen. A Few Good Men is easily one of my top five movies. It combines razor-sharp writing, a stellar cast rising to the quality of the script, and a steadily building tension, a cinematic Bolero, culminating in a thunderous climax that still resonates.
Some people like Jack Nicholson's Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, which I can respect. It's Jack being Jack, the charismatic asshole with the incisive voice and brimstone eyes. But to me, this movie has always been about Kaffee. Just running out the clock on his Navy time to pay for law school, running from the shadow of his legendary civil-rights lawyer father, burying passion and talent with ill-fitting indifference, Kaffee is terrified. Terrified of trying to be like his father and failing, terrified of trying to be like his father and succeeding. He's young, brilliant, and demanding, and when he finally begins to let it out of the box, passionate. In the end, he goes toe-to-toe with a much more powerful man, with an entire system built on silent compliance, with only right and law on his side, and he wins because he doesn't shrink in the big moment. He nearly does, because Kaffee is still afraid. But he finds his father's courage, and it gives him strength.
This film came out when I was seventeen, and it transfixed me. It still does, almost a quarter-century later.