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Lt. Daniel Kaffee is a Navy JAG lawyer with a reputation for being a lightweight; instead of actually trying cases, he prefers plea bargains and making deals. Which is his first reaction when he is handed a court martial of two US Marines, Corporal Dawson and Private Downey stationed at Guantanamo Bay for accidentally murdering Marine Private Santiago. Until an idealistic crusading JAG lawyer, Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway reveals that is what his superiors were expecting all along; preferring that he make it all go away very quietly.
As both Kaffee and Galloway investigate the incident, they discover a conspiracy at Guantanamo that reaches up from the lowest private to its highest commanding officer.
Considered a substandard Marine and a discipline problem, Santiago made numerous attempts to transfer out of Guantanamo only to be denied every time. His superior officer, Colonel Jessup is furious at Santiago's poor example; particularly since Guantanamo is in effect, "a forward base" that exists in enemy territory and his negative example will lead to a breakdown in discipline.
But when Santiago attempts to bargain for a transfer order if he informs on his fellow Marines for illegally shooting on Cuban soldiers; Jessup orders him transferred for his own safety. Only for one of the suspected shooters, Dawson to take matters into his own hands.
Their investigation is hampered by the fact that Dawson is highly contemptuous of Kaffee, believing that he is unworthy of his rank or uniform; even to the point where he refuses to salute Kaffee as his legitimate superior. Dawson is also fanatically devoted to the Marine Corps and contends that he was simply following orders in hazing Santiago and did not intend to kill him. His younger subodinate, Downey is not only simple minded but worships Dawson, cheerfully and eagerly following his example.
Kaffee and Galloway come to suspect that Jessup ordered his subordinates to ensure that Santiago undergo severe hazing to force him to shape up as a Marine; only Dawson and Downey inadvertently went too far and accidentally caused to his death. Only one man, Lt. Colonel Markinson admits to the truth and Jessup's role in the cover up. But rather than testifying in court, Markinson commits suicide.
Despite Markinson's confession, it's all hearsay and Kaffee risks ruining his career by smearing a high ranking officer in open court. But despite the risks, Kaffee realizes that there is something far more important at stake: the honor of the Navy and Marine Corps. Despite having no evidence, no reliable witnesses, and nothing to pin any charges to; Kaffee decides to do the unthinkable; demand a trial and face down with Colonel Nathan Jessup, the tyrannical Commanding Officer of Guantanamo Bay.
Forced onto the witness stand, the belligerent Jessup badgers Kaffee but inadvertently contradicts himself with a statement that Kaffee uses to crack his defense. Outraged, Jessup arrogantly admits that he did order Santiago to undergo the hazing to make him a better Marine, resulting in his arrest for murder.
Although cleared of murder charges, both Dawson and Downey are dishonorably discharged for "conduct unbecoming". Downey is confused as to why as they had only been following Jessup's orders but Dawson bleakly accepts the verdict and explains that they might have been following the traditions and codes of the Marines; they forgot the most important one. That they were supposed to stand up for those too weak to defend themselves like Santiago ... which is why they lost.
Kaffey tells Dawson that he doesn't have to be a Marine in order to have honor and Dawson solemnly salutes Kaffee in response.
- Tom Cruise as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee
- Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup
- Demi Moore as Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway
- Kevin Bacon as Captain Jack Ross
- Kiefer Sutherland as Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick
- Kevin Pollak as Lieutenant Sam Weinberg
- Wolfgang Bodison as Lance Corporal Harold Dawson
- James Marshall as Private Louden Downey
- J.T. Walsh as Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Markinson
- J.A. Preston as Judge Colonel Julius Alexander Randolph
- Michael DeLorenzo as Private William T. Santiago
- Noah Wyle as Corporal Jeffrey Owen Barnes
- Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Corporal Carl Edward Hammaker
- Xander Berkeley as Captain Whitaker
- Matt Craven as Lieutenant Dave Spradling
- John M. Jackson as Captain West
- Christopher Guest as Commander Dr. Stone
- Joshua Malina as Tom