THE STORY – When a U.S. Naval captain shows signs of mental instability that jeopardizes the safety of his ship, the first officer relieves him of command and faces court-martial for mutiny. Greenwald, a skeptical lawyer, reluctantly defends Maryk, an officer of the navy who took control of the vessel from its dominant captain Queeg, whilst caught in a violent sea storm. Greenwald becomes increasingly concerned as the court martial proceeds and questions if the Caine were a true mutiny or simply the courageous acts of a group of sailors that could not trust their unstable leader.
THE CAST – Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Clarke, Jake Lacy, Monica Raymund & Lance Reddick
THE TEAM – William Friedkin (Director/Writer) & Herman Wouk (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
It is always a significant occasion whenever masters of classic cinema decide to continue their output in the modern era. Even though sensibilities may have evolved in terms of techniques and even audience engagement, there is something special whenever a filmmaker whose work is responsible for great exhibitions from decades past releases a new piece. William Friedkin gave the world some of the greatest and most influential films ever created, chief among them being the likes of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” When it was announced that “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” would indeed be a new project from this acclaimed auteur, that was reason enough to celebrate. His unfortunate passing mere weeks before its premiere makes this a more solemn event, but one that still showcases a somewhat engaging work with significant limitations.
Taken from the 1952 play, the plot is pretty much plainly stated right in the title. A court-martial hearing is underway for Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy) following his decision to take control of the U.S.S. Caine away from Lieutenant Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) during a frightful storm that jeopardized crew safety. As such, his actions are now under the strictest of scrutiny, and an inquiry is being deployed to determine if he acted with legality. The prosecution is led by the tenacious Commander Challe (Monica Raymund), with the defense being the responsibility of Lieutenant Greenwald (Jason Clarke). As evidence is called before the board, compelling evidence on both sides is presented as to whether or not such actions were justified, all as reputations and careers hang in the balance.
Friedkin may have previously showcased some of the most memorable and kinetic sequences of cinema history, but, unfortunately, none of such inventiveness is really found here. This is a courtroom drama in every sense of the word. The small setting is hardly ever left, and the sequence of events is merely a parade of witnesses giving testimony, one right after another. It would be difficult for anyone to consistently make these scenes engaging. While Friedkin tries to vary up the shots, there’s only so much that can be done to make this single location come across as cinematic. It doesn’t help that the visual aesthetic has a glossy sheen that looks exactly like an inexpensive streaming title. Unlike other adaptations of this play, this one does not stray at all from the courtroom and makes the monotony more apparent. Things are helped by the quickfire dialogue, itself a captivating element that is often delivered with an engrossing tone from the performers. Still, it’s hard to keep this momentum at a consistent pace, though it succeeds just enough for the purposes at hand.
There is an exceptional array of actors collected here, and while not all of them have the screen time to deliver the greatest impact, all make the most of the material granted. The best-in-show designation has to go to Clarke. It’s an interesting coincidence that after just serving as a horribly antagonistic prosecutor in “Oppenheimer” Clarke should now find himself in his very next film as a man on the opposite side. Now, he is a much more sympathetic character, and the passionate lengths he goes to defend his client are a delight to witness. He also gets a grand monologue at the end during the only scene not set in the courtroom. It’s a memorable sermon about the complicated nature of judgment in a case that too many seem to cast aside, and he delivers it with impressive power.
Raymund is equally effective on the other side, presenting the arguments that must condemn Maryk. One does not have to empathize with her task to appreciate her own dedication, and she portrays this mentality expertly. The late Lance Reddick also appears as a member of the Naval board overseeing the proceedings, and it is yet another example of his graceful ability to carry the largest screen presence through simple means. All of the bit players manage to make an impression themselves, with a particular accommodation to Lewis Pullman and Gabe Kessler, the latter for providing the most humorous parts. Sadly, the only member of the ensemble who doesn’t particularly shine brightly is Sutherland. His delivery is quite stable and rigid, coming across more as a bad impression of Humphrey Bogart, who played this part in the 1954 adaptation. For such a significant role, it’s a shame that it’s attached to a weak performance that’s difficult to connect with on any meaningful level.
Many might find “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” to be a little too formal for its own good. In that sense, it feels like an odd pairing for a filmmaker who was known for grandiose innovation behind the camera. But as one settles into older age, perhaps the rigidity is what was appealing. Friedkin doesn’t always succeed at keeping this setting consistently enthralling but emphasizes the correct aspects to make it alluring at just enough moments. Most of that is buoyed by a remarkable ensemble, save for one entry. In many ways, it might feel slightly underwhelming for this to be his final film. However, perhaps that was always destined for any film with such a distinction. It’s hard to live up to the genius of the past, and no matter what capacity, that will always be valued and treasured by this giant of cinema.