The news that William Friedkin’s final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, would be released on Showtime after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival caused great disappointment among cinephiles. After creating an unimpeachable Hollywood legacy with The Exorcist, The French Connection and Sorcerer, the consensus was that the late director more than deserved a theatrical release for his curtain call.
That was an understandable feeling, since we’re all occasionally tempted to fantasize about a world where mid-priced adult dramas are a viable box office hit. But the one-two punch of a prestigious festival bow followed by Sunday night pay-TV fame seems like the most authentic distribution model this film could possibly deserve. Because at its core it is, in the truest sense of the word, a television film.
Yes, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is the work of an author who has expanded our understanding of how Hollywood spectacle can be used for artistic purposes. But it’s also a throwback to a time when television networks regularly tried to fit ambitious, self-contained dramas into their broadcast schedules. Set in a single courtroom over the course of a day, Friedkin’s film is more interested in the intricacies of maritime litigation than in car chases or nitroglycerin-related antics. But the ensemble’s stellar acting performances and the film’s remarkable understanding of human nature make it hard to ever forget that the New Hollywood legend lurks behind the camera.
The story will be familiar to anyone who has seen Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny. In the 1954 naval classic, Humphrey Bogart plays the unstable commander of a minesweeper who is deposed by his lieutenant during a violent storm. When they return to land, the ambitious young officer who replaced him has to answer to a naval tribunal for the mutiny. Friedkin’s approach to the material tells the same story, but chooses to build an entire feature film around the court-martial segment that marks the end of the original film. Rather than showing the actual mutiny, the events are all revealed through the testimony of often unreliable narrators.
When we meet Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy), he seems like a dead man. His decision to carry out the second act of mutiny in U.S. naval history has made him a deeply unpopular figure in the buttoned-up world of the military elite. So unpopular that even his court-appointed defense attorney, Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke), tells him he’s “guilty as hell” before they enter the courtroom.
But Captain Luther Blakely’s (Lance Reddick) court is the epitome of professionalism. As the Navy equivalent of a judge, Blakely insists that the legal protections to which accused officers are entitled will never be circumvented. What begins as a vigorous fight against Maryk by naval prosecutor Katherine Challee (Monica Raymund) slowly turns into a de facto trial against his deposed commander Phillip Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland). Since Maryk never denies the mutiny, the court’s job is to determine whether his actions were justified. The prosecution relies on the testimony of psychologists who vouch for Queeg’s mental abilities, but the defense cites his abusive and erratic behavior as evidence that he could not steer a ship through a crisis. Despite his concerns about Maryk’s behavior, Greenwald throws the kitchen sink at Queeg to excuse his client’s behavior.
Friedkin largely avoids dramatic flair and relies on the natural human drama of the trial. His long takes and naturalistic lighting allow the process to unfold before our eyes, showing us both the evidence and the subtle changes in the viewers’ body language. The depth in each shot allows us to observe the tableau of power dynamics that inevitably forms in a room full of naval officers of varying ranks. The filmmaking techniques underscore the fact that The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a defense of American institutions at their best – both the institution of the Navy and the legal system designed to give every defendant a fair trial. Even if Greenwald’s aggressive defense tactics push the boundaries of decency, Blakely’s decency ensures that the trial is fair.
Friedkin’s film is technically an adaptation of Herman Wouk’s stage play of the same name – which Wouk adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that inspired the original film, and which was previously adapted into a television film by Robert Altman. Friedkin has postponed the action until 2022 – but aside from changing the names of some boats and battlefields, the action is largely the same. That it still seems so relevant is a testament to the source material, which offers a timeless exploration of the conflicting human needs to question and be shaped by authority. Friedkin doesn’t add much to what’s already there, but he clearly understood why the story remains so compelling at a time when trust in institutions continues to decline.
Like so many early and late career highlights that grace Friedkin’s filmography, the minimalist film is a testament to his ability to transform individual plays into compelling cinema. He first made a name for himself by directing adaptations of stage plays like The Boys in the Band, demonstrating a flair for character that gave his future blockbusters a much more human feel than their competition. The fact that “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” opens after months of homages to Friedkin’s epic set pieces – and on the same weekend as a new “Exorcist” sequel – almost feels like the late director’s tongue-in-cheek addition to his make your own legacy. While Friedkin had an unparalleled mastery of spectacle, films like The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial prove he never needed it as a crutch.
“The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” is now streaming on Paramount+ with Showtime. It airs Sunday, October 8th at 9pm ET on Showtime.