It’s never proper to speak ill of the dead, especially when in regard to the work of two great artists’ swan song, but director, William Friedkin’s attempt to bring new life to Herman Wouk’s 1953 play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial was an improper act of its own. In one of 2023’s more bittersweet releases, the late Oscar-winning French Connection director helms a cast that includes the late Lance Reddick in a new adaptation of the iconic American story, written by the recently deceased Wouk.
Indeed, the dead honoring the dead is surreal to experience, and the respect felt for these three men far surpasses any opinion stated in this piece about the movie. That must be made clear.
As a farewell, it is disappointing.
Those who have read the book Caine Mutiny, seen the 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart, or even read the stage adaptation upon which this film is based, know the story of Lt. Commander Queeg (played here by Keifer Sutherland) and the U.S. Navy’s court-martialing of Lt. Maryk (Jake Lacy) over the mutiny of the Caine vessel during a frantic steering through cyclone. Maryk relieved Queeg before the storm due to what he considered “mental incompetence,” and subsequently made the dangerous choice to steer the ship, leading to the mutiny. The decision that must be made before the court, led by Captain Blakely (Reddick): was Maryk rightful in his position to relieve Queeg? Maryk’s attorney, Lt. Greenwald, masterfully played by Jason Clarke, must build a case in the affirmative.
Unlike the Caine Mutiny, we do not see the events on the vessel, rather they are told to us through verbal recollection by the men aboard. The film is set almost entirely in the courtroom (the same basis for the play). The story takes place in December 2022, instead of 1944, and besides a few references to newfangled discoveries like “the internet” and “video games,” very little has been updated from the original text. In fact, it’s practically cut-and-paste. This is a bold choice that leads to some puzzling questions, including that of the diction of these characters; it isn’t so much the 1950-era vernacular itself, but the sensibilities backing these words that appear antiquated (an example: the use of the phrase “business” when referring to an event; “that business with the storm…”).
Most importantly, the themes in the original work, that of balancing the heft of patriotic loyalty and advancing personal ambition, do not hold up in a post-9/11 “question everything and every institution” America. None of the characters in this film felt legitimately motivated. The villain of the story, Lt. Jr. Keefer (Lewis Pullman) is dead set on exploiting his Naval experiences in a novel he is writing. This novel may have rocked the world in the Eisenhower era, but it packs little-to-no punch in the information age (what would you sooner do, read an expose in the New York Times or buy and read a novel?)
There are decent performances in the film, including downright mesmerizing moments from Clarke and Lacy. Keifer Sutherland plays Queeg doing what could only be described as an impression of Bogart on Valium. His voice mirrors that of a standup comic mimicking a radio announcer’s voice; it feels at any point that he’d look through the barrel of the camera and demand that we buy Bosco chocolate sauce. Then, there’s Reddick, a wonderfully mysterious actor reduced to playing one single note as the head of the court: angry. Angry at what? The trial itself? The defense tactics? The Beyonce tickets were sold out? Who knows, for he’s just the heated, pointed voice that asks even more questions.
As for action: the choice not to show the action on the Caine is a noble one, but there is so little business and so much information that it requires a great deal of exercise to cull through it while finding a perspective as an audience member. Films do not need explosions to titillate, sometimes an argument can suffice. However, when two hours of arguments lead to an ending that defies what we’ve been taught and introduces entirely new perspectives, it is safe to label it as just “talk.”
The great William Friedkin is responsible for this mess. He is a director that should be lauded with praise in the aftermath of his passing in August at the age of 87, but his singular vision for this film was trite and ineffective. Like all great practitioners of the arts, the material he leaves behind is left to be debated. Critics, overall, seem to disagree with my position. The film has been released on Paramount+ to stellar acclaim, some of which for the reasons I marked as negative.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a stellar play from a stellar author, and while this film doesn’t serve justice to the story, it is made by incredibly talented people who leave us their goodbyes. Perhaps the greatest honor one could give to William Friedkin and Lance Reddick is to see their work and discuss it.
Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.