The movie “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” based on William Friedkin’s book, premieres this weekend on Showtime and Paramount+. Deceptively clever and a reminder of Friedkin’s sophisticated, obvious skills, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” may appear like a side project for the filmmakers of “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection,” yet it was actually filmed around the same period.
There is a strong theatrical element since the whole thing takes place in one location, but Friedkin has shown again and again that he can adapt stage plays for the film without distorting their strengths. His direction of an A-list cast yields riveting results thanks to his deft hand behind the camera and judicious use of edits. From a distance, we can appreciate what Friedkin contributes to this adaptation of Herman Wouk’s classic story of revolt, and we may experience a sense of sadness that we will never receive that precise gift again.
Most of what happens in “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” takes place within the courtroom. Viewers are left to draw their own views based on the testimony of the principal participants without the benefit of any flashbacks from Caine. Friedkin, the film’s cinematographer Michael Grady, and editor Darrin Navarro begin their narrative games early on.
Consider the first three witness statements. As befits his captain position and the possibility that he misused his authority, Queeg is framed primarily alone with few cuts and quite close, giving him the bulk of the frame. Keefer, the second witness, is set farther back in the frame so that Commander Challee, played by Raymund, may share it with him; this is done to show Challee’s subordinate position to that of Queeg.
Last but not least, Gabe Kessler’s character, Urban poses for a distant photograph so that everyone in the room, including the witness, can see him. These minor decisions have an effect on how we see the characters; Friedkin constantly makes choices, even when he isn’t emphasizing them.
On the Caine, a ship that got stranded in a hurricane in the Strait of Hormuz, a court martial is being held for Lieutenant Maryk for mutiny. When Maryk and her friends clashed with Captain Phillip Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) about how to steer the ship and her crew through the natural calamity, Queeg was effectively removed from command.
Even though Maryk is technically the defendant, Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke) of the defense team knows that Queeg is the real bad guy here. Maryk will be released if they are able to establish that Queeg was not competent to serve as captain. Witnesses to Queeg and Maryk’s mental condition include Monica Raymund (the main prosecutor), Lewis Pullman (Thomas Keefer, an associate of Maryk’s on that fateful day), and Tom Riley and Jay Duplass.
The excellent Lance Reddick, as Captain Luther Blakley, the leader of a hearing involving the charge of mutiny against one Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy), adds to the bittersweet quality of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” in front of the camera. Playing Blakley with such gravitas, Reddick reminds us of how much weight he could bring to a production with his performance. It’s as though God himself is listening in on this.
Friedkin was also an exceptional director of performance, and it is because of him that Sutherland gives one of his finest performances. Sutherland animates the famous Queeg in his two brief moments as a witness (once for the prosecution and once for the defense). While Sutherland portrays the role nearly as a victim of PTSD, someone whose fear has turned them into a monster, they are more often portrayed as wide-eyed power gone wild. Beyond Sutherland, Clarke stands out for how well he captures Greenwald’s overall reluctance to take down a third soldier and how he manages the notorious final moment. Macy and Pullman are also strong.
Even if Friedkin avoids the obvious interpretations, it’s hard to believe that the timing of this picture is a coincidence in light of recent leadership failures throughout the globe. However, I would argue that Friedkin doesn’t escape that interpretation at all, particularly in the last moments, which show leadership has partially failed because of the quality of the individuals being led.
Without giving anything away, I will say that Friedkin loves to provoke, and the last statement in “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” is an excellent example. It’s ironic that the concluding moment of his film would cause so much controversy; it’s a sequence that, in some ways, shows the trial and everything leading up to it to be flawed products of a flawed system. It’s a fitting tribute to a filmmaker who shattered the illusions of power, religion, and rationality. Plus, it serves as a sobering reminder of what we lost when he left.