The plan was for renowned director William Friedkin to be appearing at the Venice Film Festival presenting the out of competition World Premiere of his latest production, an adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1954 play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Unfortunately Friedkin died August 7th, but the show goes on anyway.
What Venice witnessed is a solid, no-frills, new film that Friedkin had said he always wanted to make. While it won’t stand on the same level of some of its director’s most vividly great achievements like his Oscar winning The French Connection, horror classic The Exorcist, or underrated (at the time at least) and ambitious Sorcerer, this version which he also adapted himself is a welcome addition to his filmography.
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Often staged beginning on Broadway in 1954 with Henry Fonda and a star cast, it has gone through many other theatrical and television productions over the years, and of course a Stanley Kramer-produced film version (winning multiple Oscar nominations including Best Picture), also in 1954 that used Wouk’s 1951 novel as its source material and was much more than the courtroom-bound drama Wouk would himself adapt for the stage. In that film which I recently saw again we see events unfold, but in the play it is almost more effective just to hear those events retold by those involved watching their body language.
The plot is well known. Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke) is a highly skeptical veteran Navy lawyer who is convinced against his own best judgement to defend Lt. Steve Maryk (Jake Lacy), a straight arrow First Officer of the Navy who took over the U.S.S. Caine after wrestling control from its questionably “sane” and hard nosed Captain, Lt. Phillip Francis Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) during a violent storm. Queeg is actually the first major witness but as the trial continues apace , it is Greenwald who becomes the central player as he questions accounts of the events about the ship. Was it indeed a “mutiny”, or could it have been acts of courage under duress by sailors who simply felt they had good reason not to trust the erractic and possibly “unstable” Queeg.
In Friedkin’s new telling of the play, the answers aren’t as clear and the director had said he wanted that to be intentional, that the question of right vs wrong should be a bit more ambiguous. Friedkin seems most interested in letting us decide, perhaps things aren’t as black and white, and maybe there is good and bad in all of us. In that he succeeds masterfully because, with the 1954 film that starred Humphrey Bogart as Queeg, in my mind I always believed the guy was off his rocker. Seeing this version it is rather fascinating to watch where Friedkin in his teleplay (this is designed for Showtime) puts the emphasis. He also has even changed the sex of a major character, Prosecutor John Challee to a female played with conviction and determination by a fine Monica Raymund. This is a tip of the hat to changing times in the military, even tribunals like this one, and the events of the play in Friedkin’s adaptation are no longer set in WW2 , but rather post 9/11. It is a key difference in this version, one that actually has the effect of showing the relevance of this now 70 year old work as even more pertinent and provocative as ever. The timing is right for this new version, especially in a world now full of mis-information, conspiracy therorists, secrets and lies, and attempts to rewrite history.
Where Friedkin also really scores is in its casting. Sutherland’s Queeg is smooth and fascinating to watch on the stand, not at all a reminder of Bogart, but in fact someone we can believe might have been justified, that is at least in the beginning. We can also have some level of sympathy for him. Sutherland is very fine here and perfect casting, but the acting honors ultimately belong to Clarke in one of his best performances. This is a lawyer forced to defend someone he really doesn’t believe, and he socks that inner conflict home before really getting the play’s major punch in before end credits roll. He leaves the audience reeling. Lacy plays it straight as Maryk in a rather unflashy part, compared to some others, but he is authentic and certainly looks the part. As other key players called to the witness stand, Lewis Pullman as Keefer, Jay Duplass as Bird, and Tom Riley as Keith have their moments. Especially poignant is seeing the late Lance Reddick as the Judge in one of his final roles. He gives the film real gravitas and authority, and in fact it has been dedicated to him.
Michael Grady’s cinematography is sharp and assured, and so is Friedkin’s movements of the camera that zero in at just the right beats, but are never static. Without much cinematic trickery at all, or resorting to other approaches (such as what Stanley Kramer did in constantly revolving his camera 360 degrees around the courtroom in Judgement At Nuremberg) Friedkin keeps the eye on the prize which is the content and crackerjack dialogue.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial circa 2023 proves that without a doubt Billy Friedkin still had game. We should be glad he got his chance to make it.
Title: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
Distributor: Showtime, Republic Pictures, Paramount
Director/Teleplay: William Friedkin
Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Clarke, Jake Lacy, Monica Raymund, Lewis Pullman, Jay Duplass, Tom Riley, Lance Reddick
Running Time: 1 hour and 48 minutes
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