Review by Jonathan Berk
The legendary director William Friedkin’s last movie, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, is a great reminder of what a talented director can do within limitations. Most of the film is set in a simple room with three tables, several chairs, and people in naval officer uniforms, and almost the entire runtime is simply people talking or reacting to other people talking, yet there is not a moment wasted or that feels slow. The camera choices, the casting, and intentional editing are all at their top performance so much that one actor whom I've historically criticized often and again even won me over here. It’s hard to imagine not being engaged in the story and performances on display in Friedkin’s final film.
Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (played by the inherently punchable Jake Lacy) stands trial for mutiny after taking command from Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (played incredibly by Kiefer Sutherland). Maryk claimed Queeg was acting unhinged and was putting the ship and its crew in danger. His defense attorney, Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (single-handedly Jason Clarke’s best performance), was reluctant to defend him. His hesitation is slowly revealed throughout the proceedings. Captain Blakey (a character that the late Lance Reddick fully embraced and was perfectly cast) leads the trial, trying to keep everything above board.
This story lives or dies on the performances and how they are presented on screen. The first time Sutherland is on screen, Friedkin shows his deft hands in so many ways. Initially, Sutherland is in a mid-shot, and the camera is just trained on him. He is allowed to act, and there are very few cuts in his responses to the prosecution's questions. It’s not too long into the scene that he begins to twiddle his thumbs. Eventually, Friedkin cuts in close with Sutherland’s face centered on screen as the content of his monologue gets more intense. That initially arbitrary seeming action of twiddling his thumbs is a huge set-up for the character of Queeg. The intensity and demeanor of Queeg setting up his return later in the film, as we learn the defense plans to call him as their own witness. Friedkin makes what could be an unimportant scene convey so much information about the character, specifically because the testimony provides so much exposition. We learn how to read the film, who Queeg is, and what the conflict is for the defense.
In Redding’s character, we find ourselves quickly aligned. He, too, is watching with much interest, and you can see him wrestling with the same things we are. He wants to assume Queeg is the man his record indicates. Maryk acting unreasonably as mutiny is a serious charge that is basically unprecedented, as noted by Redding’s character. Yet, as the trial moves on, and the prosecution, led by a magnetic performance from Monica Raymund, makes great points, parried by other great points from the defense, the audience along with Redding clearly waves back and forth with our opinion of who is at fault. The tension builds into an epic climax, which leads to an even better final shot. Of course, those who take the hot seat are part of what helps the tension.
Every time Lewis Pullman is in a film, he becomes a highlight. In this, it appears he finally hit puberty, looking far more like his father Bill than ever, and projecting authority in a way I’ve not seen him do prior. While he’s not in the film for long, he makes the most of his time and leaves quite the impression.
Gabe Kessler, Tom Riley, Elizabeth Anweis, Francois Battiste, and Jay Duplass all get their time in the chair and deliver equally engaging performances. Each testimony offers a little more insight into the characters of Queeg and Maryk. In lesser hands, the visuals would probably start to feel redundant, but Friedkin finds ways to mix things up. At one point, the camera is high and behind the center sets of table, with Redding in the center looking out over the room. When Duplass is on the stand, the camera starts far lower and at a great distance from him until it slowly moves into a mid-shot. The space is small, but it is used so well.
Then there is the Clarke of it all. He has an innate standoffishness about him that works perfectly for this character. He doesn’t seem to have a friend in the room, and his intentions are unclear. He upsets many people who sit in the chair as he grills them, looking to show Queeg as incapable of leadership, thus justifying Maryk’s mutiny. Clarke wins the audience over as he demonstrates a strong understanding of his role in the trial. The final scene is the best, and Clarke delivers an incredible monologue before getting to deliver an action in the final frame that will likely stick with audiences.
For fans of movies like Paths of Glory or A Few Good Men, there is a real chance you may truly enjoy The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. The film is a showcase of great monologues and courtroom tension delivered by an incredible filmmaker whose recent passing will surely be felt more and more.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial will be streaming on Paramount+ with Showtime on October 6.