64: A Few Good Men

Can you handle the truth? This week we’ll see how much of A Few Good Men we can compare with history.

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Episode Transcript

On April 20th of next year, 2018, there’s an animated film coming out called Duck Duck Goose. While I’m fairly certain it’s not based on a true story, as a fan of animated films I’m eager to see the debut film from a new animation studio, Original Force Animation. They’re backed by the Chinese mega-company Tencent—the same company that owns Riot Games, the makers of the massively popular game League of Legends.

Alongside Jim Gaffigan in the lead role, one of the characters in Duck Duck Goose is voiced by none other than comedy legend Carl Reiner.

Carl began his acting career in 1948 and became a household name as he played Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show. That’s a show, by the way, that Carl also helped write for five years.

As it turns out, writing runs in the family, because Carl’s son, Rob Reiner, would grow up to follow in his father’s footsteps both writing and acting. Rob has a couple dozen writing credits to his name, including classic TV shows like All in the Family—a show he also acted on as Michael Stivic, or “Meathead” as his character was nicknamed.

Oh, and if you saw The Wolf of Wall Street, Rob Reiner was the guy who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s father, Max Belfort.

And yet, with all of those accomplishments, a lot of people know Rob Reiner for his work behind the camera. In 1992, it was Rob Reiner who directed A Few Good Men, a film written by Aaron Sorkin, and went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

It didn’t end up coming home with the Oscar, but it’s a film that almost everyone knows at least one line from—even if they don’t know it’s from A Few Good Men. I’m speaking, of course, of Jack Nicholson’s famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Yeah, I know…Jack says it a lot better than I do. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks.

But since we’re on the topic of truth…that’s sort of what this show is all about. So what of the true story behind A Few Good Men?

The true story behind A Few Good Men

The movie begins with a very 90s sounding musical intro as the text on screen explains we’re at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The sun is setting and then we see two Marines sneak into someone else’s bedroom. They wake him up and grab him and tape him up, muffling his screams of protest.

Those two Marines are Private First Class Louden Downey, who is played by James Marshall, and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson, who’s played by Wolfgang Bodison.

Then on the receiving end of the crime is actor Michael DeLorenzo’s character, Private First Class William Santiago.

After this, we’re at the JAG office in Washington, DC when we find out the fate of the man who was taped up—unfortunately he passed away. The other two men are being held.

We’re also introduced to Demi Moore’s character, Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway.

And as is often the case, we can kick off this movie by learning that, like the introductory scene, most of it isn’t real.

At least, there’s not really any documentation outside of classified information that it is.

According to the film’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, the story was one that came about from a conversation he had with his sister, Deborah. It was in the 1980s when she joined the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the U.S. Navy, or JAG, after graduating from Boston University Law School.

Basically, JAG are the Navy’s lawyers.

While Deborah was a JAG lawyer in 1986, a casual phone call with her younger brother drifted to a case she was working about something called a “code red.” He might not’ve thought much about it at the time, but it was that phone call that would end up being Aaron’s inspiration for the film.

As a quick side note here, a “code red” is slang term in the military for illegal hazing. Since it’s illegal, it’s something that’s, quite simply, not really something we’ll likely know if it happens.

Not officially, anyway.

There have been quite a few reports of military members claiming to know about “code red” incidents. Usually they’re incidents like what we saw in the film, some sort of retaliation or hazing of soldiers that’s not officially sanctioned by the U.S. military.

But, of course, there’s not going to be any official documentation to back it up. At least, nothing that’s available to the general public like you and I.

So while there’s no way to know for sure short of asking Aaron Sorkin himself—and he’s not replying to my emails—exactly how true the movie is, but I’m just guessing Aaron didn’t copy everything in the movie scene for scene from a phone call.

Not only that, but we also know from some interviews Aaron has done in the past that he wrote the film while he was at his other job. You see, while we might know the name Aaron Sorkin now because of his hit shows like Sports Night, The West Wing, or The Newsroom, but at the time he wasn’t known.

He had graduated from Syracuse with a Bachelor in Musical Theatre in 1983 and spent many years struggling to get into show business as he worked plenty of odd jobs—just to pay the bills.

It was while he was working at one of those jobs, as a bartender for the Palace Theatre on Broadway in New York City, that Aaron had the call with Deborah. By that, I don’t mean she called him while he was actually working at the bar—the call was actually on a Sunday morning, so I doubt he was working the bar that early—but that’s where he was working at the time.

It sparked an idea. Later that very same day while Aaron was at work, he used cocktail napkins to start writing down the story idea.

So with that in mind, we can get a sense for the basic structure and how some of it might’ve been based in truth but there’s plenty that was made up to fill in the gaps.

And that’s not even to mention the events took place at Guantanamo Bay. If you’ve not heard of that, it’s the United States’ super-secret military base in Cuba. Not secret in the sense that no one knows it’s there, obviously, but secret in the sense that only those with a need to know basis have an idea of the things that go on there most of the time.

If we’ve learned anything from the Aaron Sorkin movies we’ve covered on this podcast so far like The Social Network and Steve Jobs it’s that Aaron’s not afraid of trading historical accuracy for a great story.

Speaking of the movie Steve Jobs and Apple Computers, as a little side note Aaron eventually ended up taking those notes on the napkins and finishing up the script for A Few Good Men on the Macintosh 512K he and his roommate at the time shared.

Anyway, that script would end up becoming his first theatrical play, A Few Good Men, which launched in 1988. Then, of course, four years later it’d be adapted into the movie we know of today.

Speaking of the movie, it’s not long before we’re introduced to Tom Cruise’s character, a Lieutenant Junior Grade named Daniel Kaffee. According to the movie he’s a softball-playing inexperienced JAG lawyer who’s handed the case of Marines Dawson and Downey accused of murdering Santiago.

The character of Daniel Kaffee is fictional, but there have been a few people who have come forward since A Few Good Men came out saying they were inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character.

One of those is a lawyer named Walter Bansley III, who served in the Marines for two decades as a military lawyer. At least as of this recording, if you go to his website at bansleylaw.com you’ll see in his bio that there are reports that he’s the lawyer Tom Cruise’s character is based on. He currently runs a law firm in Connecticut.

Another lawyer who claims the story in A Few Good Men is based on him is Chris Johnson. Chris is currently a lawyer in California, and again on the bio on his website he talks about his defense of a hazing incident at Guantanamo Bay while he was a Navy JAG.

Then there’s David Inglesias who, after the timeline of the movie in the 1980s, was the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico from 2001 to 2006 before a rather public and messy firing by the then-President George W. Bush.

As if that’s not enough lawyers claiming that they were the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character, there’s another one named Don Marcari. Like some of the others, Don has the claim that he’s one of the true-life inspiration for A Few Good Men on multiple pages over on his law firm’s website.

So what’s the point here?

Well, for one the movie is correct in showing that the case didn’t involve just one lawyer on both sides.

But it’s also something where one can’t help but be suspicious when a Hollywood movie is made about one of your cases—of course that’s going to be amazing marketing for you. That’s why it’s on all of their websites.

And since a lot of what really happened is hidden in the veil of military secrecy, it’s likely we’ll never know who the real heroes were and who were simply participants. Or maybe they were all heroes and Tom Cruise’s character really was a composite of all four lawyers, like some of them have claimed over the years.

So who was the real person that Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee based on?

Well, I’ve been unsuccessful in reaching the film’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, to find out. But The New York Times tried to find out, and they got a response from a spokesperson for Aaron. According to him, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee is based on…no one. He’s a completely fictional character.

But is that true?

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know.

Now that we’ve had a few more great movies come from Aaron Sorkin that have been based on a true story, it’s my own speculation but I’d venture to guess he cared much more about creating a good story than worrying about actual history.

Which makes sense, especially when the actual history is hidden.

As you can probably guess by now there’s a lot of mystery around the true story that inspired the film. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything underhanded going on, but there’s just a lot of unknowns when it comes to a military trial hidden from public eye.

While we don’t know a lot about the details of the case, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention probably the most famous line from the movie.

It’s Jack Nicholson who’s playing Colonel Nathan Jessup saying, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Actually, that might have some extra meaning. Based on a True Story? You can’t handle the truth? Hmm, I wonder if that’d make for some good merch for the podcast. I’ll have to look into that.

Anyway, that line was fictionalized for the film. As an interesting little tidbit, though, Jack Nicholson ended up making a cool $5 million for his three scenes in the movie. Those three scenes took about ten days to shoot. Not bad.

Of course, he worked for it. That scene with his now-famous line took almost an hour to shoot.

So up until now, you’ve probably noticed we haven’t really done a lot of comparison of specific scenes in the movie with history like we usually do on the show. Unfortunately, that’s something we can’t really do since we don’t know a lot of the details that actually happened.

The military has never released details of the account and the people who were there haven’t talked about it.

Well, most of them haven’t.

After A Few Good Men was released, one of the men who was involved in the incident came forward. That man was David Cox.

David Cox joined the Marines straight out of high school in 1985 with his best friend, Jay Stevens.

By July of 1986, David was a muscular and fit, 5′ 11″ 170-pound Marine stationed in Guantanamo Bay. David and some of his friends felt that another Marine stationed there, Private First Class William Alvarado, was a malingerer—they thought he faked a lot of illnesses to get out of work.

One Saturday night, after watching the movie Animal House, David and his comrades decided to take part in the real “code red” that eventually made its way on screen in the movie.

Unlike what we saw in the movie with two Marines blindfolding Santiago, in truth there were ten Marines who blindfolded, stuffed a rag into William’s mouth and beat him up.

David grabbed shears and started giving William a haircut when he noticed his skin was starting to turn blue. They stopped their hazing after he started spitting up blood and passed out.

He was flown to nearby Miami, Florida where he recovered. So unlike what we saw in the film when Michael DeLorenzo’s version of Private First Class William Santiago was murdered, the soldier who was beat up, William Alvarado, was never murdered.

But it was still a serious incident.

Many of the Marines, David included, claimed they were only following orders. The commanding officer involved was immediately shipped away from Gitmo—that’s slang term for Guantanamo Bay.

Seven of the other men were discharged in “other than honorable” ways. But David was one of three Marines who refused to accept a plea bargain. Instead they decided to go to court martial.

That’s where the lawyers came into the picture.

In the movie, the fictional Dawson and Downey are found not guilty of murder, but they’re dishonorably discharged.

In truth, David Cox was never charged with murder because, well, William Alvarado didn’t die. But after four days in court martial, David Cox was found not guilty of aggravated battery. He was found guilty, though, of simple assault. With that charge came a 30-day jail sentence. That sentence was waved off since he’d already served 38 days in the brig prior to appearing in court martial.

He also wasn’t dishonorably discharged. In fact, David Cox continued serving in the Marines for two more years until he received an honorable discharge in 1989.

How do we know all this? Well, as we eluded to earlier, after the movie was released, David Cox wasn’t too happy with how he was portrayed—even if his name was never in the movie.

Mostly he didn’t seem to be too happy with the fact that the movie makes it seem like the “code red” resulted in murder when it didn’t.

Moreover, he felt the filmmakers were stealing his story. According to an interview with his girlfriend at the time, Elaine Tinsley:

“He was stunned. Here was this movie company that was making tons of money off of his story, and if it weren’t for him, the story would never have existed in the first place.”

By the time 1994 rolled around, David was working at the delivery company UPS and along with some of the other Marines involved in the “code red” had filed a lawsuit against Columbia Pictures, the production company behind A Few Good Men.

As a part of the lawsuit, a new string of public attention was paid to the incident at Gitmo—and David was willing to share information about what really happened. That’s how we know many of the pieces we’ve been able to learn in this episode.

But you’ll also notice we don’t know all the details. A big reason for that is because of what happened next.

The night before David was expecting to hear from his boss at UPS whether or not his temporary position would be made full-time, he had some back trouble and decided to sleep on the couch so he didn’t keep Elaine up.

In the morning, Elaine went to work at about 8:30 with David still sleeping on the couch. She called home over her lunch break around noon to see if David had gotten the good news yet. He didn’t pick up the phone, but she was able to check the messages on the machine—David had gotten the job at UPS!

Elaine didn’t think much of it and went back to work. About an hour later, she called back. David still didn’t answer.

Huh, that’s odd. That same message from UPS was on the answering machine, too. Oh there was another message from UPS wanting David to call them back.

Oh well, maybe he’s just sleeping in late. After all, his back was giving him enough trouble that he slept on the couch. Maybe he didn’t get much sleep the night before and is catching up.

At about 5:30, Elaine got home from work she saw David’s truck was in the driveway.

When she went inside, she knew right away something wasn’t right. All of the doors in the apartment were open. Not a single one closed. David and Elaine had a pet rabbit that they usually kept penned in the kitchen, but someone had set it loose—it was hopping all over the house.

David was nowhere to be found.

Going back out to his truck she noticed a few things that seemed off. David’s latest paycheck, still uncashed, was on the dashboard and the keys were in the ignition. Then she checked the glove box…it was still there. The 9 millimeter gun was right where he had left it.

Where was David?

Hours passed. The police were brought in, but they weren’t much help.

As hours turned to days, Elaine watched their bank account, but there was no activity. David wasn’t taking any money out or spending anything.

It had to have been agony. What happened?

Days turned into weeks. Weeks to months. In the spring of 1994, David’s body was found just five miles from his apartment in some nearby woods on the bank of a river in Medfield, Massachusetts.

He had been shot. Four times.

Three shots in the left side of his torso and once in the back of the neck.

It wasn’t robbery—David had cash and credit cards in his wallet.

According to the officer working the case, the police believed he went into the woods willingly:

“It’s our belief that he got in the car willingly, that he knew who was coming to pick him up, and that he went into this area and walked into the woods with this person. I think that if it was somebody that was just holding a gun on him or something like that, they would do it within the first 30 or 40 yards into the woods. David was found almost three quarters to a mile walk into the woods.”

While that might explain the way he was found, it doesn’t explain why.

One theory is that maybe it has something to do with something going on at UPS. David’s brother mentioned that a few months earlier he had mentioned he thought one of the drivers and a supervisor at UPS might be involved in robbery of some sort.

But that’s not the only theory.

According to David’s mother, she thinks it might have something to do with his outspoken nature about the incident at Gitmo after filing the lawsuit. In particular, he had performed a radio interview in which he opened up quite a bit about what happened.

David’s lawyer, Don Marcari, has his own suspicions. In an interview after David’s body was found, Don explained:

“I don’t know why David was killed. I personally believe it had something to do with the military. He was taken out of his house without signs of struggle, he was wearing his Marine Corps jacket, which he never wore. He was found between two hunting ranges where gunshots would not be unusual, and he was murdered execution style.”

Today, the case surrounding the death of David Cox remains unsolved.

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