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'The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial' Review

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October 6, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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William Friedkin’s new adaptation of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial comes at an interesting moment. The first, and most unfortunately obvious, fact is that Friedkin passed away at the age of 87 in August, just a few weeks before this film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. There’s also the coincidence that the film begins streaming on Paramount+ With Showtime and then airs on Showtime the same weekend as The Exorcist: Believer, Blumhouse’s reboot of the horror franchise Friedkin originated with the 1973 original masterpiece. We can thank Taylor Swift for aligning the stars to allow Friedkin, never one to mince words with his opinions, to get the last laugh, at least in terms of quality. Believer will just have to settle with the boatloads of money it’s about to make.

The Caine Mutiny originated in 1952 as a novel by Herman Wouk. The work of fiction grew out of the author’s personal experiences aboard destroyers during WWII. After its enormous success, Wouk adapted the material for the stage, a relatively easy task considering the novel’s one-room setting and small cast of characters. A movie adaptation was produced in 1954 starring Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Fred MacMurray, and E.G. Marshall.

Along with directing, Friedkin also wrote the screenplay for this new take on the material, moving the setting from the Pacific Theater during World War II to the current-day Persian Gulf. The titular mutinous act performed aboard the USS Caine takes place during a torrential cyclone. Lieutenant Maryk (Jake Lacy) has lost all faith in the commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Queeg’s (Kiefer Sutherland) ability to guide them safely out of the storm. Maryk cited that Queeg was mentally unfit due to the stress of the situation, a common occurrence during his tenure. The insubordinate officer is being court-martialed for his actions, with Lieutenant Greenwald (Jason Clarke) reluctantly assigned to defend him in front of the military tribunal.

Many will bemoan seeing a director as legendary as Friedkin having his final film reduced to premiering on a streaming service. While it’s an admirable sentiment, it avoids the fact that this material is ripe for the smaller-scale television landscape, an area Friedkin excelled at in the past with his 1997 adaptation of 12 Angry Men for Showtime.

Friedkin may abandon the original material’s setting, but he has no qualms about embracing its inherently stage-like feel. A basic military courtroom serves as the sole setting throughout the 108-minute runtime. The action is repetitious, with a string of witnesses (Lewis Pullman, Tom Riley, Elizabeth Anweis, Jay Duplass) called upon to testify to Queeg’s time as commander and the specifics of what happened that fateful day. They’re each staged and edited around in their specific way, which keeps things fresh and flavorful. It’s a less theatrical version of A Few Good Men, with that restraint used to build nuance around this ethically dense topic.

Despite only appearing in two scenes, Sutherland delivers his best performance in years as Queeg. To continue the A Few Good Men comparisons, he would be this film’s Col. Jessep, finely played by Jack Nicholson. Sutherland isn’t as hammy, although his character does sport a peculiar set of quirks such as speaking out of the side of his mouth and twiddling his thumbs to distract from the trembling of his hands. Between this film and Oppenheimer, Jason Clarke has shown his skill in playing contestable lawyers. And there’s also another figure who was taken from this world too soon in Lance Reddick, who’s never been a bad addition to a cast.

Sure, this won’t be remembered as Friedkin’s finest work. It’s not at the same level as The French Connection, The Exorcist, or To Live and Die in L.A. But not every Alfred Hitchcock film is as good as Psycho, nor is every Billy Wilder film as good as Sunset Blvd. Friedkin is at that level where even some of his great movies won’t be remembered as strongly as his masterpieces. Make no mistake, this is a great movie, a fitting farewell to a filmmaker who could take any material and mold it into something uniquely entertaining and personal.

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