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The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

Directed by William Friedkin
Produced by Matthew Parker and Annabelle Dunne
Screenplay by William Friedkin Based on the play by Herman Wouk
With: Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Clarke, Jake Lacy, Monica Raymund, Lewis Pullman, Jay Duplass, Tom Riley, Lance Reddick, Elizabeth Anweis, Francois Battiste, Gabe Kessler, Gina Garcia-Sharp, Stephanie Erb, and Dale Dye
Cinematography: Michael Grady
Editing: Darrin Navarro
Runtime: 108 min
Release Date: 06 October 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1
Color: Color

For his final film, legendary New Hollywood director, writer, producer, raconteur, and cinema survivor William Friedkin adapts Herman Wouk's play about the military court-martial of a US Navy officer who took over command of his ship from an unstable captain. It's a fitting finale work for the great filmmaker, since Friedkin first achieved acclaim by adapting works created for the stage—making excellent pictures from Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party in 1968 and Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band in 1970. Then, after the turn of the millennium, when Friedkin's reputation had soured a bit (he directed several uneven, financially unsuccessful, and sometimes outright terrible features), he recovered his mojo and his critical appraisement by directing two films based on plays by Steppenwolf actor and playwright Tracy Letts—the creepily unsettling Bug in 2006, subtly and the sordid Southern-fried-gothic Killer Joe in 2011.

In 1997, Friedkin made an all-star TV movie of 12 Angry Men, in which he and Reginald Rose made slight alterations to Rose's original teleplay to subtly modernize the setting and attitudes of the characters. He followed that project with the staging of a series of operas for international stages—fourteen productions in all. At 87 years old and not in the best of health during the production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, it was pretty clear this would be Friedkin's final film. The final work of a great artist doesn't always turn out well, and this update of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is one of the director's finest adaptations of a stage play—more cinematic than his 12 Angry Men, more perfectly contained than his Killer Joe, and more authentically realized than his The Birthday Party.

The play is based on Wouk's own Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 novel, The Caine Mutiny, and was originally directed for the Broadway stage in 1954 by none other than Charles Laughton. The book and play had been adapted for the screen several times before. The most well-known and best-loved screen version is the 1954 film directed by Edward Dmytryk, produced by Stanley Kramer, and starring Humphrey Bogart as the disturbed Captain Queeg—a performance that earned Boggie his third and final Academy Award nomination for subverting his heroic screen persona. That film follows the full narrative of the book, beginning with junior officer Willis Keith's assignment to the Navy destroyer minesweeper USS Caine, following the various ways her paranoid captain mismanages the ship, and how Officer Steve Maryk relieves Queeg of command during the height of a dangerous typhoon. When the ship safely returns to port, Maryk and Keith face a court-martial for mutiny. Queeg is relentlessly cross-examined at the hearing by Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, the Naval Aviator and attorney reluctantly assigned to be Maryk's defense counsel.

Wouk's stage adaptation focuses only on the court-martial climax of his book. So, like officers who must decide the outcome, the audience knows only what the witnesses report about the events aboard the Caine. It's a powerful drama that provides many juicy roles that actors can sink their teeth into, especially the role of Captain Queeg. Franklyn J. Schaffner directed a live television version of the play in 1955 in which Lloyd Nolan reprised his stage role as Queeg. In 1988, Robert Altman directed another made-for-TV version with an all-star cast that included Jeff Daniels as Steve Maryk, Brad Davis as Queeg, and Eric Bogosian as Barney Greenwald.

All prior screen versions of the play and novel have kept the World War II setting. But Friedkin's teleplay updates the setting to the Persian Gulf and alters the details of the Caine mission to one that reflects a contemporary timeline. I was shocked at how well the modernization worked. This is a quintessential World War II story, where the stakes feel properly proportioned to a world at war. Resetting witness testimony from incidents during critical minesweeping maneuvers during the invasion of Kwajalein to more routine present-day maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz would seem to downgrade the importance of the trial. Similarly to how, when Steven Speilberg remade the 1943 romantic drama A Guy Named Joe in 1989 as Always, changing the main character from a bomber pilot to an aerial firefighter made the whole story feel less significant.

That is not the case here. Friedkin's screenplay and direction don't lean too hard into analogies between the dangers of one unstable, paranoid, past-his-prime ship captain and the current crop of world leaders, especially American ones, but the parallels are there. And because Wouk's extraordinary final scene turns the tables on its characters and the audience, the ending of this film comes off as an indictment, not just of old captains who are too worn-out and young officers who are too green to merit our trust, but of all levels of the system and society. There is confidence in this no-frills production, which is photographed straightforwardly on a set that practically feels like a big empty room. In his TV version of 12 Angry Men, Friedkin used handheld cameras that seemed randomly aimed at the imposing cast the way a novice director would shoot if they only had three days to make the movie. This picture is photographed and designed with precision, accentuating the material's stagebound qualities, the limitations of TV production, and the fact that the frail director was in a weakened condition, using these all to great advantage.

The cast assembled for this project is unexpected but excellent. We might think Kiefer Sutherland is far too young to play Captain Queeg. He's three years older than Boggie was when he played the role, but an actor's actual age is never a good way to assess their appropriateness for a part. Sutherland's take on the notorious martinet captain is understated, apart from a facial deformity; his Queeg's mouth is partly paralyzed, making him seem shifty but sympathetic. We don't want to judge him negatively because of his odd physical condition. Yet, we can't help viewing him positively because he probably got this malady in the line of duty. Jake Lacy, an actor most known for TV work ranging from The Office to Girls to The White Lotus, plays Lieutenant Maryk as a man who feels one hundred percent in the right, the way only a Millennial can. Yet he also conveys the tangible sensation he's in over his depth, and he needs to trust a process he's rightly dubious about. As lead judge Captain Blakely, Lance Reddick brings a controlled air of dignity to the proceedings in a way few actors have ever been able to do. Reddick was famous for this type of softspoken authority ever since he played Lieutenant Cedric Daniels in perhaps the greatest TV drama ever made, the HBO series The Wire. (Reddick died from heart disease before this picture was released).

The real star of this production is Jason Clarke as the defense attorney, Lieutenant Greenwald. Clarke has been a “that guy” actor for years, doing excellent but relatively unsung work in pictures like Zero Dark Thirty and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He was compelling playing Ted Kennedy in the little-seen (and not very good) Chappaquiddick. He can also be appreciated this year in another legal context as the lead attorney in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s backroom security hearing in Oppenheimer. But this is his best performance yet. Clarke plays every facet of this conflicted character, whereas most actors in this role overplay one aspect of his personality over another or make shifts that feel too extreme. In his hands (and in Friedkin's), the final monologue lands with such stinging and lasting power that we keep replaying it in our minds throughout the end credits and long after the movie ends. The power of this ending is fitting as the final statement from a maverick director who was never afraid to explore in his work the many ways his views on most issues of the day had changed, evolved, or become less clear throughout his life.

Twitter Capsule:

For his final film, William Friedkin returns to the type of project that has severed him so well over his career, a cinematic adaptation of a great stage play, delivering an excellent modern-day update of Herman Wouk’s redoubtable WWII-era courtroom drama.