The courtroom drama is a genre of movie and TV show that has never gone out of vogue. It’s very easy to get invested in a courtroom drama; it thrives on the dramatic tension of the binary question of whether or not justice will be served. Viewers and TV writers alike have got savvier over the years with expectations of guilt or innocence often at the whim of a perceived need to either shock or delight the audience. With so many twist decisions now built into the genre, audiences are always left biting their fingernails as the verdict is announced.
In a courtroom drama there are no guarantees that the correct verdict will be delivered. One of the more interesting sub-genres is the military courtroom drama. It provides the same dramatic tension of the regular courtroom drama, but it layers in the extra tension of military procedure and concepts like obedience and duty that can occasionally conflict with standard human behaviours and what everyday people may see as the true course of justice.
When most of us think about military dramas, A Few Good Men is usually the first that comes to mind. Starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Kevin Bacon, the film was a pop culture sensation. Even those that haven’t seen it are familiar with the high drama of Nicholson addressing Cruise with maximum shouty conviction, “You can’t handle the truth!”
But it’s not as if A Few Good Men is the only military courtroom drama. The Caine Mutiny, Judgment at Nuremberg, Breaker Morant, Courage Under Fire and Rules of Engagement are among the best known films. On TV there have been fewer military courtroom dramas, with the long-running JAG among them.
The Good Wife explored military courts on more than one occasion. Spin-off series The Good Fight has picked up that tradition. This week it returned to military court for an episode that both played into and against audience expectations set by A Few Good Men.
Appearing in front of Judge Leora Kuhn (Linda Emond), the same Judge that had presided over the military trials seen in The Good Wife, Corporal Demarcus Laney is on trial for sabotaging the weapon of his commanding officer. Laney had witnessed his C.O. Sergeant Meyer committing war crimes by purposefully killing innocent Afghans during a deployment.
As lawyer Caleb Garlin (Hugh Dancy), an ex-soldier himself, says in court, early into a military career soldiers learn when to follow the commands of a C.O. and when not to. In this instance, Corporal Laney had registered complaints against Meyer, but none of them were acted upon. This prompted Laney to interfere with the sights on Meyer’s rifle, which in turn led to what was claimed to be the accidental shooting of a translator. While A Few Good Men was about abuse in the chain of command, this episode followed the story of a breakdown in the chain, enabling abuses to occur within it.
Being The Good Fight, the show took a ripped-from-the-headlines approach to its story with President Trump issuing Meyer a pardon for the war crimes he was being prosecuted for in an entirely different trial he was also facing. The real-world inspiration for this plot line was Trump’s pardon of Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher who had been convicted of posing with the corpse of a young Islamic State fighter. Trump intervened in the case following coverage from media outlets such as Fox News.
With Trump the Commander-in-Chief, the show is suggesting that the breakdown in the chain of command comes from the top down. This entire season of The Good Fight has been about the failures in judicial systems, but here we’re seeing the same systematic failures occurring within the military structure.
The Good Fight often has its characters in conflict with the breakdown in norms and new operating environments established by Trump. This is one of the rare episodes where the characters are able to directly use a Trump action and score a win. With Trump overturning the ruling issued to the fictional Sergeant Meyer, it then prevented Meyer from refusing to answer any questions on the stand. His previous declaration of seeking protection under the 5th amendment was no longer valid as he could not be found guilty for admitting to any wrongdoing. This opened a pathway to the military jury finding Corporal Laney innocent on the most serious two of the three crimes he was charged with.
The message delivered on this week’s The Good Fight wasn’t echoing Colonel Jessup’s claim that “You can’t handle the truth”. The message here is that the truth might be that forces are often blocking the pursuit of justice, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t also score some victories along the way.
Season 4 of The Good Fight is screening exclusively on SBS, airing Wednesdays at 9.30pm. Episodes are available at SBS On Demand after they go to air. Watch episode 1 now (available until 4 December 2020):