In Maureen Dowd's review of the first presidential debate, she draws an interesting comparison to the courtroom fireworks in "A Few Good Men." Sez Dowd: the same way that Jack Nicholson's erratic, volatile temperament provided Tom Cruise with an easy courtroom kill (watch it here), McCain's erratic, volatile temperament gave Obama an opportunity for an easy debate "knockout punch." Dowd and others are disappointed that Obama didn't go for the knockout punch -- i.e., that he didn't provoke the old man into saying something dangerous or silly on national TV.
Movie analogies are great -- they give us a fun way to examine what we actually expect from our real-life public heroes. But I would argue that Dowd's choice of movie here -- and choice of screen hero -- betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal that Obama continues to generate despite his unwillingness -- or inability, as some charge -- to go for the kill. McCain only slightly resembles the snarling, damaged Jack Nicholson character. And Obama ... well I think he can do better than Tom Cruise. He's nothing like the actor or the character in "A Few Good Men," and he has a different, more nuanced, more complex mandate from the American people.
While reading Dowd this morning, I was reminded of another great courtroom story, "The Caine Mutiny." In the classic film version of the Herman Wouk book, a World War II navy captain -- Commander Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart -- comes apart during the court martial of officers who took control of the captain's ship (the USS Caine, an aging destroyer on its last naval legs) during a difficult storm in the Pacific. The job of unravelling the captain at trial was left to a Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a wicked smart navy attorney played by the great Puerto Rican actor, Jose Ferrer. Queeg -- like the Nicholson character in "A Few Good Men," and like McCain character in real life -- has been acting strange lately. Greenwald detonates Queeg on the witness stand by leading him through a harrowing interrogation that pushes him over the edge and expose his "madness" (watch it here). The smart lawyer prevails, and the defendants are acquitted, just as they were in "A Few Good Men." But the victory in "The Caine Mutiny" increasingly feels hollow toward the end of the film as we become aware that Greenwald was just doing his job, and that he relied heavily on the manipulations of a cunning, deceitful officer on the Caine, who had set the mutiny in motion. Which makes "The Caine Mutiny" less like "A Few Good Men" and more like "Witness for the Prosecution," another film that examines the ways people can be hurt by the mechanical and corruptible nature of courtroom justice.
There are higher standards, of course. The Ferrer character -- whose lean, mean, and cool good looks make him a far better Obama than Tom Cruise -- knows better than to claim his courtroom performance as a victory. And Obama knows better than to publicly destroy a man who, despite all his shortcomings, is a war hero. There is no honor in leading a McCain Mutiny, relieving a man of his duties simply because he looks old and rattled. And I suspect the public agrees. Yes, there was no "knockout punch" at Friday's debate. Still, a substantial margin of likely voters think that Obama won the debate. And that, my friend, is a victory worth claiming.