It’s not even a month since we lost the great William Friedkin. He made history as one of the leading directors of the ‘New Hollywood’, the movement that revolutionized American cinema along with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich and so many others. He changed the action movie genre with The French Connection, he changed the horror genre with The Exorcist. His movies were marked by a muscular direction and a search for authenticity, both in style and in themes.
His final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, premiered out of competition at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, is based on Herman Wouk’s celebrated play and while story is perhaps already known it is well worth retelling it.
The set is a San Francisco court-martial room and the defendant is Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy). He is wrongfully accused of relieving Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) of duty as captain of the USS Caine amid a terrible storm the ship was at the center of. Maryk changed the course of the ship, directing it into the storm, opposing Queeg’s decision to steer away from it. While the crew survived the typhoon, prosecutor Challee claims that the course of events was still the result of a wrongful mutiny by the crew, led by Maryk. The main accusation towards Maryk is that he turned the crew against the captain not out of conviction that the captain had gone insane but out of resentment and personal hatred. Maryk’s lawyer, Lieutenant Greenwald, actually believes that Maryk is guilty but he’s intended to give him the best possible defense. In this context, the movie follows the trial very closely, from the testimonies of some of the crew members to those of the main actors at play, Maryk and Queeg.
One of the specificities of Friedkin’s cinema is the very blurred line between good and evil, always walking that very fine line, exploring the innate contradictions of morality, of ethics. In this sense, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is the quintessential Friedkin movie. The main point in the movie is that the justice system is inevitably fallacious: verdicts always come with a ‘guilty or not guilty’ duality, while the reality of things is often much more complex. Can one person be guilty of a crime even though their conduct was not only in good faith but also right? Can a person be inadequate for a role while at the same time undeserving of the treatment they received? The judicial system is not able to deal with these discrepancies, it can only offer a binary answer to very complicated questions. The movie also wonders if a system that is based on ‘hearsay’ (to mention a word that is very common in judicial jargon) can be fully trusted. Yes, it’s possible to make a judgment based on the testimony of a handful of people, but how valid will that judgment be? The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial goes deep into this matter and it’s supremely satisfying to watch the result.
Of course, for a movie that relies so heavily on dialog, the cast is a key factor into its success, and it’s practically perfect. From the reliable Jake Lacy as Lieutenant Maryk to the stern Lance Reddick (who also suddenly passed away earlier this year) as the intimidating Judge Blakely, to Monica Raymund as prosecutor Challee, everyone in the cast is given material and time to shine, but it’s Jason Clarke in particular as Maryk’s lawyer Greenwald and Sutherland as Commander Queeg that give the ensemble the spark of brilliance, with two killer monologues that are not only spectacular to witness but also give their characters a layer of depth that they didn’t have before.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is further proof that William Friedkin was a master filmmaker and that he will be missed.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial will be released on Paramount+ internationally.