Review – The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023)

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Overview

Synopsis The second of command of the USS Caine is court-martialed based on the claim that he committed a wrongful mutiny against his captain.

Length 1 hour, 48 minutes

Release Date October 6, 2023

 

Rating NA

Distribution Paramount+, Showtime Networks

Directing William Friedkin

Writing William Friedkin, Herman Wouk

Composition NA

Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Clarke, Jake Lacy, Monica Raymund, Lance Reddick

On August 7, 2023, legendary filmmaker William Friedkin passed away in his California home at the age of eighty-seven. The one-time director of famous films like The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Bug, and Killer Joe left this world a major mark on the filmmaking medium, both as an artist producing his own works and as a student of the form helping to preserve it and sing its praises.

While the director lamented before his death that he was unhappy that Blumhouse was making a trilogy of sequels to his beloved original Exorcist film, he was able to finish one more movie that was released posthumously this month on Paramount+/Showtime just a week after Exorcist: Believer.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: None.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe language throughout the film.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters briefly drink alcohol. Alcohol is also a plot point.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Themes of authority, civil disobedience, and the rule of law.

Review

Students of film history know that Friedkin’s final production is not the first time that Herman Wouk’s famous 1952 book The Caine Mutiny has been adapted to film. Columbia Pictures released a version in 1954 starring Humphrey Bogart that is considered a classic. The book was also adapted into a two-act stage play the same year called The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, narrowing the book’s focus down to its climactic courtroom scenes. Friedkin’s version, although heavily augmented and adapted into a modern setting, is the version that escaped to streaming services this October.

Set against the Persian Gulf and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the story explores the court-martial of Lieutenant Maryk (Jake Lacy), the second in command of a minesweeper vessel assigned to patrol near Iran and mark sea mines for passing ships. After a series of escalating incidents aboard results in Maryk forcibly removing the ship’s Captain, Lt. Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland), from the bridge to prevent the ship from sinking, he is put on trial before a Naval court-martial to decide if his actions were justified or if he violated the Navy’s most precious rules against the chain of command.

The contrast between both versions of the story is fascinating, given they bridge the gap between two very different genres of fiction—those being war movies and legal dramas. The original film is a sweeping Naval picture set against the fear and stress of World War II, while the new version is a distinctly modern film that feels like a bureaucratic legal procedural. However, that does not mean the new version is boring. It is actually quite riveting, especially given the entire story takes place in one room.

The late Lance Reddick and Jason Clarke really own the entire picture, being its two driving characters, but also just in how excellently they deliver impactful performances behind the masks of procedural legalese and procedure. They are both professional military men who care about the law and truth, and their words have tremendous gravity to them, particularly Clarke who gets to deliver the famous last-minute gut-punch of a soliloquy against the story as we thought we understood it.

The Caine Mutiny is a fascinating story, bother for its place in Hollywood history and for its subtextual implications. The original film’s director was influenced by Hollywood communists and was briefly blacklisted for feeding propaganda into his films like Crossfire, with this film serving as something of a curious mea culpa of sorts. It’s both a story about the importance of questioning authority and a story about how subversion against authority is immoral and cruel—ergo why the USS Caine is curiously named after the Biblical traitor of the same name. Queeg is wrongheaded and paranoid, but in the end, so are the people who question him.

Friedkin’s version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial beautifully captures this core tension, dramatizing both sides of this complicated moral, and giving all of the characters of this drama a chance to deliver fully-rounded performances that show just how complex and manipulative everyone is, even when they’re ultimately right for doing what they did.

The only real problem with the movie is its cinematography. The movie looks like it was shot by a made-for-TV crew. It is overlit and looks relatively cheap, but Friedkin’s abilities behind the camera are still strong. He relies heavily on long takes and knows how to efficiently position the camera to emphasize the drama in the scene, and makes this small cramped space feel lived-in and intense, much in the way a stage play would.

As far as final films go, Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is quite impressive. The film was reportedly produced for an extremely low budget and in a very short period of time earlier this year. Most of the shots in the film were only shot once because they didn’t have time for multiple takes, and the film wasn’t even able to be shot until filmmaker Guillermo del Toro agreed to produce the project and sit on standby as an insurance director in case Friedkin was incapacitated during filming. It is a product that barely made it out the door, and it is all the more remarkable that it is a highly compelling and engaging film all the same.

It marks a modest and beautiful swansong for one of the greatest careers in Hollywood history.

Positives

+ Excellent lead performances
+ Great adaptation of Wouk's script

Negatives

- TV-level cinematography
- Cheap-feeling production design/set

The Bottom Line

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a solid and gripping low-budget drama and a solid final film from one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history!

 

8.3

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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