The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023)

Directed by: William Friedkin
Distributed by: Republic Pictures

Written by Patrick Hao


Guilt, innocence, and justice are often morally gray in the works of William Friedkin, who passed away this August. Works like “The Rules of Engagement,” the 1999 TV adaptation of “12 Angry Men,” “Cruising” and “The French Connection” show that Friedkin has always been fascinated by the ways implementers of “justice” are plagued with that responsibility. As current events bombard us with the increasingly tenuous notions of “justice,” Friedkin’s final film, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” feels especially on the pulse. 

Adapted from Herman Wouk’s play of the same name, which adapted from Wouk’s novel “The Caine Mutiny” (which is probably best known for producing the Humphrey Bogart starring 1954 film of the same name), “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” is faithful to the source material. The film, staying true to the play and unlike the Bogart version, never shows the events of the mutiny. The events are laid out through testimony in which we as viewers slowly learn the facts. The film mostly takes place in one location, a military courtroom, cold and dispassionate with its polished wood. Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy) is on trial for seizing control of a minesweeper USS Caine from Lieutenant Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland), who Maryk alleges had gone mad from pettiness and tyranny during a potentially deadly storm. Tasked with defending Maryk is Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke), who openly admits that he was assigned this uphill battle of a case. 

On the prosecution is Commander Katherine Challee (Monica Raymund), framed as exceptionally competent, while overseeing the proceedings is Captain Blakely (Lance Reddick), whose deep voice and observant eyes pin him as a god-like figure. It is also interesting that Friedkin cast the implementers of “justice” as a woman and black man, two categories of people historically oppressed, especially in the military, upholding those institutional powers. Friedkin is deliberate in these types of choices, although no more so than in his filmmaking style. 

The film is hyper-clear in a way that only digital can offer you. In almost a soap opera effect, the garish look of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” makes one hyper-focus on the actors. The courtroom and the proceedings are drab, overlit, and staid because that is the decorum that has been instituted to carry out “justice.” However, what this forces us to do is dig beyond just testimony. Maryk, in the way that only Jake Lacy can do, exhibits his aw-shucks dopey charm with an undercurrent of smarm. Sutherland as Queeg is intensely rigid in trying to keep up the appearance of a commander, and other testimonies from the likes of Lieutenant Keefer (Lewis Pullman looking more and more like his father Bill) becomes nakedly bare and vulnerable throughout the filmmaking. 

The camera rarely makes a judgment call on these characters. However, it is the final monologue from Greenwald in which Friedkin’s true intentions are expressed. Although not much is different from the original source material, the Bogart film’s final monologue is tinged with Greatest Generation rhetoric. Here, it is more complicated. Once again the moral gray area of justice comes to the forefront. Even the one significant change to the story by Friedkin is emblematic of what Friedkin is trying to accomplish. By updating the setting from World War II to the Persian Gulf War, the film is dealing with an armed conflict that is not as easily morally quantifiable (if there is such a thing). 

For Friedkin, the truth is always more complex than it seems. His works have always exhibited that. So it is only fitting that his final film, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” is a barebones outright example of that, stripping away the artifice and style that he was known for. Yet, that need to zig when everyone is expecting you to zag, especially after his two previous play adaptations “Bug” and “Killer Joe” were so stylized, is what makes Friedkin an iconoclast. 

Rest in peace.

“The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” Trailer

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