I heard on the radio recently [that is, back in June of 2012, when this post first appeared] that Aaron Sorkin, currently in the news with the launch of his new HBO series The Newsroom, has said that if he were writing his first play (& movie), A Few Good Men, today, he would definitely want to make some changes. I say, Great! Let’s start with the lead character — Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise in the movie. Kaffee is a J.A.G. military attorney, the quick-witted son of a famous and accomplished lawyer, but when the show starts, he’s been slacking his career away in Pleabargainville, famous in his office for never having actually seen the inside of a courtroom. When it really matters, though, he steps up to the plate and hits a home run, saving two young men from an undeserved fate and, against all odds, getting the real villain to reveal himself.
That must have been an enormously fun role to play (Cruise got to call Demi Moore “galactically stupid!”), but Kaffee is a terrible role model for attorneys, or for that matter for any worker. Imagine how you would feel if, as your flight to London took off from Dulles, you heard this announcement: “Good evening, passengers; this is Captain Kaffee, and I’ll be flying you across the Atlantic tonight. I’ve never actually flown a plane before, but I have been loading luggage for the past 9 months! Anyway, my dad was a test pilot for the Air Force. So you just sit back and relax.”
There is a part of our collective mythology that revels in the natural hero. Superman is the ultimate; he can fly and lift buildings and check to see if Lois Lane is wearing Victoria’s Secret just because he was born that way. You never see Superman working out or practicing for hours to master martial arts disciplines. He didn’t have to spend 10 years as an associate superhero, working his way up from just handling the paperwork on supervillain arrests, then maybe — with supervision — stopping a few jaywalkers and litterbugs, before finally being deemed ready to face, by himself, a minor evil genius bent on ruling Vermont. And Superman almost never learned by his mistakes, simply because he almost never made them.
Whatever the appeal of the natural hero, it’s no good for the workplace. People aren’t just born great attorneys, or airplane pilots, or massage therapists. They need to work at it, for years, to figure out all the details, to develop all the necessary skills and knowledge, to build their strengths by working on increasingly complex and difficult projects, and to make (or see other people make) mistakes so they can learn how to avoid them.
Batman — now, he’s a good hero for the workplace. Not that he wasn’t born with certain advantages — a fine physique, a sound mind, many millions of dollars in assets — but those are not what made him a hero. He spent years training and developing his skills in a wide range of disciplines, single-mindedly pushing himself towards one all-consuming goal (distributing vigilante justice while dressing as flying vermin in latex). He even mentors young associates!
So, while I enjoy watching Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson (who I thought could not have been more badly miscast, but then along came As Good As It Gets . . .) slapfighting in the courtroom scenes, I never watch A Few Good Men without wistfully thinking of a real fictional lawyer hero: Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird. He is Batman to Kaffee’s Superman. We know that Atticus has plied his practice for years, that he has slowly developed the skills and reputation that make him the effective professional he is. We see him working late, not just cramming like Kaffee (who actually makes his two co-counsel do all the research!), but steadily plowing away over the long haul. And we even see Atticus fail.
In short, Atticus Finch and Batman are human. They are real career heroes because they become great in the face of that humanity — imperfection, the need to develop, and the time it takes to meet that need. If you are an alien rocketed to Earth to escape an exploding sun, you can afford to ignore their example. But the rest of us need to keep them in mind.