The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial Is a Simple Conclusion for a Singular Filmmaker

Movies Reviews William Friedkin
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial Is a Simple Conclusion for a Singular Filmmaker

The warm yellow hues of William Friedkin’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial immediately transports viewers to the TV dramas of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There is an undeniable draw that these sets–slick, contained, sparklingly clean—possess. Drawing you back to a simpler genre, where on-screen truth was something absolute and unable to cower in a dark corner. When the title flashes on screen in big, bold letters, these nostalgic impulses are being smartly manipulated. Over the course of film, Friedkin moves this story from a place of mind-numbing stability to shakier, amoral ground. Crucially, he understands that the courtroom drama, and the pictures they evoke, were never apolitical spaces. As such, he plays exclusively in the shadows cast from the court’s uneven power dynamics, making a case for every character’s complicity in the mutiny at hand. 

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial follows Barney Greenwald (played by a predictably steely Jason Clarke), who must defend Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy, who uses his slew of nice guy performances to smarmy effect) from charges of mutiny after seizing a naval ship from Commander Queeg (Keifer Sutherland). A small cast (including the late, great Lance Reddick as a judge who sparingly shatters the delicate proceedings with the boom of his arresting voice) is locked in the courtroom for the majority of the runtime, litigating the nuances of a story in which the facts—masked in excessive, uncompromising detail—slowly expose the ink-black rot coloring the American military.  

While the kind of courtroom dramas this film evokes (namely Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men) treat their central trials as the endpoints to impassioned professionals’ quests for justice, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial treats its subject as a frustrating distraction for Greenwald. There are only two scenes which don’t take place in the polished courtroom, both of which allow Greenwald to briefly put this case in the context of his shifting personal opinion, hinting at his disdain in sharp, jagged outbursts that break through the film’s smooth, marbled exterior. 

Friedkin treats the high-ceilinged courtroom as the film’s beating heart, away from which, the camera spins into disorientation, tracking the desperate characters as they wander through a web of bland, vaguely connected hallways. These liminal spaces are purposely closer and darker, collecting less light and leaving these people stranded away from the reliable brightness of the court setting. 

As an interpretation of Herman Wouk’s much-adapted play, Friedkin’s movie captures the trial with minimal cuts, fixing the camera on whichever lawyer or witness is telling the story. These long stretches are broken up with silent reactions from members of the court. Each of these interstitial moments subtly reorients the ongoing action. These startling, wordless reactions undercut the slew of wordy accusations bandied about with a tight grimace or nod. 

For a film so heavy-handed in its dialogue, the rare moments when Friedkin chooses to center another, crunchier sound stands out. After Queeg is forced to address the more embarrassing examples of his poor leadership, he pulls out a pair of marbles—a callback to his psychiatrist’s report on his inability to control any physical shaking. Suddenly the metallic clacking is inescapable, gripping everyone in the room, who sit in pitiful rapture, trying to overt their eyes while still fulfilling their commitment to bear witness. 

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial isn’t Friedkin’s most sophisticated directorial effort, nor is it his most advanced thematic musing on man’s capacity for evil. Yet it enshrines him as an actor’s director, one capable of coaxing out subtle responses that can, by decimals of a degree, change the temperature in the room. In the film’s final scene, where everything suddenly, horribly clarifies into absolution, we are forced to take stock of our complicity. So won over by the easy nostalgia of the courtroom, we have allowed true perpetrators to slither into the shadowy halls ensnaring the main set, exiling innocent people from this warm light in the process. 

Director: William Friedkin
Writer: William Friedkin
Stars: Jason Clarke, Jake Lacy, Lance Reddick, Kiefer Sutherland, Monica Raymund
Release: September 3, 2023 (Venice Film Festival)

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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