The Caine Mutiny looms large over American film and literature.
Herman Wouk’s 1951 Pulitzer-winning navy novel has been adapted numerous times, perhaps most famously as a 1954 movie by Edward Dmytryk, which starred Humphrey Bogart. Around the same time, it was also adapted by Wouk himself, as a two-act play called The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which distills the events of the book down to its central military trial. This play forms the basis of William Friedkin’s final film, which The Exorcist director completed before his death last month. It’s also his first film in over a decade, and on the surface, it seems far more simple and straightforward than most of his repertoire. This is, however, by design.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is an entertaining, thoroughly engaging courtroom drama that bides its time by placing its highly capable, star-studded ensemble front and center (including The Wire’s Lance Reddick, who died earlier this year). It’s a modern update to Wouk’s post-World War II writing that, at first, seems to strip away some of the play’s core identity. But by the time its contemporary musings snap into place, its conscience is far less easy to parse than that of preceding versions.
What is The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial about?
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial wastes no time yanking us into its plot. Except for a brief title card over an establishing shot of a military courthouse — a few seconds long at best — the 109-minute runtime is spent almost entirely within its four walls, dropping us in media res into an ongoing argument between an accused naval mutineer, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy), and his reluctant defense counsel, Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke).
Maryk’s trial concerns his wrangling of the command of a naval vessel, the USS Caine, from its captain, Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) in Dec. 2022. A disagreement over how to steer the Caine clear of a cyclone led to Maryk assuming command under a military clause that allows him to do so if, and only if, his commanding officer is declared “insane” (their term). This is something that fearsome lead prosecutor, Commander Katherine Challee (Monica Raymund), sets out to disprove to a panel of judges led by Reddick’s Captain Luther Blakely.
However, the nature of the case means putting Queeg on trial just as much as Maryk — albeit not in a legal sense — leading to conflicting testimonies from several crew members of the Caine. In tandem, the supporting characters collectively paint a picture of both Maryk and Queeg, not only on the day of the incident, but in the months and years leading up to it.
Unlike the novel and the Dmytryk classic, these events aren’t portrayed but rather recounted in the film, forcing us to piece together information and perspectives as a jury might; Friedkin ensures we enter the story cold, but his approach slowly morphs, guiding us to be more absorbed and convinced by it, one way or another.
This is where his instinct as a director of character-actors comes in handy as well. The ensemble is littered with semi-familiar faces — Top Gun: Maverick’s Lewis Pullman; director Jay Duplass; it’s a “that guy” extravaganza — who are either convincing, or convincingly unconvincing, in their at-length delivery of evidence as the movie evolves.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial has an unconventional visual approach
The film is self-assured in its straightforwardness, even when its initial scenes appear concerningly plain. Despite feeling like a TV special, this version has little in common, stylistically speaking, with Robert Altman’s 1988 TV movie based on the play, which created an imposing atmosphere and an immediate intensity. However, Friedkin’s initial, seemingly non-committal framing and design end up forming a dramatic honeypot. He lures viewers into a sense of comfort and familiar network-procedural rhythm before subtly tweaking and modulating his aesthetics. If movies and TV have become indistinguishable in the “prestige” streaming era, thanks in part to the latter’s increased budgets, Friedkin’s small-scale approach zips in the opposite direction; why shouldn’t low-budget cinema be what TV used to? And why can’t it use this lo-fi visual language as a starting point to build itself anew?
The humdrum vibe of the courtroom, shot with deep focus, flat lighting, and lukewarm medium and long shots, slowly gives way to closeups and more dynamic camera movements that capture not just the actors’ spatial relationships, but the flow of information and the way it reveals character. Before long, narrative paradoxes emerge, placing the apparent legal and moral “correctness” of each character at loggerheads, yielding a particularly snappy edit (courtesy of Darrin Navarro) that emphasizes the poetry of the dialogue. What’s “right” and what’s “legal” collide not through actions — which may have made them easier to interpret as viewers — but through words and technicalities, which muddies the water, even though the movie mostly refuses to cast doubt on the sincerity of anyone’s motives. They’re black and white characters in a world of grays.
The movie’s aims feel wildly different from any adaptation before it, especially in the ways it’s modernized for the current climate of American politics and the post-9/11 zeitgeist.
Where the film was once composed of straightforward, static shots of people at ease, it soon begins to slowly dolly around them in subtly disorienting fashion, as the drama simmers. Cinematographer Michael Grady employs longer lenses the further things drag on, turning seemingly “objective” testimony — delivered and captured in stilted, TV news anchor-like fashion when the movie starts — into subjective (and perhaps even unreliable) recollections, as the previously prosaic environment around the characters begins to blur. The filmmaking approach is simple, but effective, allowing the script, performances, and slowly-increasing visual intensity to build in tandem.
Structurally, it plays as one long scene, collapsing and condensing witness testimonies into a continuous stream of verbose arguments that are equal parts alluring and amusing. What is perhaps most surprising about The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is how downright funny it is, both as a farcical critique of military rules and regulations, and as a showcase of just how effective well-timed reaction shots can be (especially deadly serious ones, courtesy of Raymund and Reddick).
Like the many versions before it, Friedkin’s adaptation ends up portraying Lieutenant Queeg’s well-documented paranoia, but it also leans into the sheer absurdity of the events and transgressions being described. This has the effect of providing comic relief when the story begins unraveling, but it also provides a greater contrast and emotional whiplash when the film finally attempts to paint Queeg with a more nuanced, empathetic brush, waiting until the last possible moment to do so.
Whether it succeeds the way previous versions do ends up an irrelevant question. The movie’s aims feel wildly different from any adaptation before it, especially in the ways it’s modernized for the current climate of American politics and the post-9/11 zeitgeist.
William Friedkin shifts the moral center of The Caine Mutiny
In a recent update after Friedkin’s death, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial now begins with a fitting on-screen quote adapted from an interview about his previous film, Killer Joe, back in 2012. He said, of that movie’s title character: “He’s both good and evil and I believe they both exist in everyone I’ve ever met.” This becomes a contradictory guiding credo for his final work, which appears, at first, to be much more didactic conception of the story than any previous version.
Its morality appears to live in its performances. In the center stands Riddick as a stern observer whose outlook shifts the more he listens — a diligent audience avatar. On one side of him sits Clarke, with his Atticus Finch-like dedication to duty, and Lacy with his square-jawed, “all-American” virtuousness placed under fire. On the other side sits Raymund with her imposing, antagonistic intensity. And then, most vitally, there’s Sutherland with his sheepish entitlement and snake-like self-justifications, defined not by the broken battle-fatigue of Bogart’s version, but by irritated, Trump-like streams of consciousness, delivered with the distinct absurdist cadence of Norm McDonald narrating frustrating anecdotes to Conan O’Brien.
It’s a film of immediate “good guys” and “bad guys,” and it even omits some of Wouk’s more complex elements, like late revelations about Queeg that make him more sympathetic, and Greenwald’s Jewish identity (and thus, Wouk’s own). The latter held vital importance so soon after World War II, and played a large part in the play’s closing speech and the way it re-framed the story. However, by swapping a war widely seen as just from the American perspective for the events following 9/11 — the ensuing Middle Eastern invasions, and the general cultural climate — Friedkin’s updated timeline is befitting of the thematic emptiness with which he presents (and pokes a hole in) the play’s climactic spiel.
…nearly two hours of expert craftsmanship…
Without giving too much away for those unfamiliar with the story, words that previously re-framed specific events and characters now re-frame institutions and top-down perspectives. The narrative, through its sharp dialogue, still endorses a militaristic viewpoint, but this played much more comfortably (and more heroically) in 1951 than it does today. The entire film, therefore, builds carefully to a sudden turn that plays like a minor plot reveal on paper. But in execution — thanks in no small part to its fine-tuned performances — this feels not only like the rug being pulled out from under you, but like you’ve been forced to suddenly recall and reckon with Friedkin’s opening quote, just when you’d begun to let your moral and emotional guard down.
This dizzying 180 turn is a hell of a way to go out for Friedkin, and it’s preceded by nearly two hours of expert craftsmanship, and a film that’s as solidly, reliably entertaining as anything you’re likely to see this year.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial premiered on Sept. 3, 2023 at the 80th Venice International Film Festival. The film will eventually be streaming on Paramount+, dates TBC.