One of the great figures of America’s 1970s New Hollywood movement, director William Friedkin passed away just under two months ago, leaving behind a storied career in film and television. It makes his final film, the slick, barebones The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a bit bittersweet, as it reflects a kind of moviemaking of times gone by.
THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL ★★ (2/4 stars)
Adapted from the 1953 play of the same name, The Caine Mutiny sticks to its staged roots. Nearly the entire film unfolds in a single courtroom, where a reluctant Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke) represents Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy). Maryk is on trial for usurping Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) during a treacherous cyclone at sea. According to him, Queeg exhibited signs of insanity during the storm that, under naval code, gave Maryk the ability to wrest control of the ship from his commanding officer. The court (led by the late Lance Reddick) must decide whether this was an act of mutiny or one of great heroism while under pressure.
It’s not the most objective case, which means every little personal detail about both Maryk and Queeg is of the utmost importance in crafting a narrative that will stick: if Greenwald can show that Queeg is unreasonable, Maryk way be acquitted; if the prosecutor (Monica Raymund) can stoke the flame of other officers’ discontent, he may be damned. It’s a tricky, often prickly story about gray areas and how frequently people (especially those in power) linger in them. As each side gets fleshed out, the film runs the risk of becoming routine—witness says something in Queeg’s favor, only for Greenwald to pressure them and get them to admit something that puts Maryk in a better light, rinse, repeat—but Friedkin sticks to a brisk rhythm.
There’s a snap and a verve to these court proceedings, largely thanks to Clarke’s commanding performance. He already showed off his courtroom chops earlier this year in Oppenheimer, posing as an unforgiving government attorney, and Clarke keeps that intensity up as he fights for a man whose actions he can’t agree with. Watching Clarke and Sutherland face off as lawyer and key witness is worth the price of admission (or, I suppose, the price of a Paramount+ with Showtime subscription) alone. Sutherland makes Queeg affable and rambling but clearly competent, making monologues about ship management seem riveting.
While The Caine Mutiny is a showcase for its actors, it doesn’t put much else on display. Single locations have been used to great effect in films before, but this one feels like it’s just a set. The lighting flattens everything out and you can tell that the courtroom windows are fake, that what lays beyond them is generic set dressing. It adds to the pervading sense of a TV procedural, which the movie may as well be now that it’s been relegated to streaming and premium cable, skipping theaters entirely.
The look isn’t the only thing that comes across as out of date, either. Friedkin shifted the original story from the Pacific theater of World War II to a minesweeping ship in the Middle East in 2022. While the year is updated, not much else is. Greenwald cross-examines two psychiatrists, who each yield some odd diagnoses that likely wouldn’t hold much water in our more mental illness-aware culture today—especially in a rigorously researched naval court.
More significantly, the film’s final scene finds Greenwald waxing poetic on the lack of respect younger officers show their superiors, invoking 9/11 and the troubled legacy of America’s war on terror to cow the alleged mutineers into feeling shame for their choices. Placing the incident in that context makes the speech (and the story around it) rocky, inviting questions about blind patriotism and American exceptionalism that the movie refuses to interrogate. It’s a questionable note to end on, with the rest of Friedkin’s final film being adept at analyzing the pitfalls of human nature, even and especially in military contexts.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.