The scene that still stands out for me after repeated viewings of Rob Reiner’s military courtroom drama features one of the most oft-quoted and even mocked lines in film, but it cannot be denied how powerfully it is delivered by one Mr. Jack Nicholson. Nicholson doesn’t have a big role in the film; in fact his total onscreen time is approximately 30 minutes. But mention the film to anyone who’s seen it and you’ll invariably hear an impression of Nicholson’s famous exclamation, “You can’t handle the truth!”
In the eighteen-minute cross-examination at the end of the film, Nicholson delivers an intense and dramatic speech; a speech that he was asked to recite some fifty odd times so that director Rob Reiner could film reactions of the other actors in the scene. As Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, Nicholson is brazen, bold, self-righteous and unapologetic. He’s been called to the stand by Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a young navy lawyer assigned to defend two Marines accused of murder. Kaffee needs Jessep to admit that he ordered the two men to perform a code red – a form of Marine discipline similar to hazing – on a physically weak recruit. The practice of code reds is strictly prohibited by the military. Getting an acquittal hinges on Kaffee getting an admission from Jessep since he has no actual proof that the Colonel gave the order. Nicholson and Cruise give tour-de-force performances as they bear down on each other in an intense meeting of the minds in which youth attempts to out manipulate the manipulating senior ranking officer. No one can snarl, bark and deliver barbs quite like Jack Nicholson and his skills are on fine display in this memorable scene stealer.