Opening with the late auteur’s thoughts on cinematic morality, William Friedkin’s final film received applause straight off the bat as it made its Venice debut. In a pre-title director’s note, Friedkin explains that all the films he has chosen to make have toyed with “the thin line between good and evil”. The Exorcist director may have toyed with the Devil, but this chamber piece, pitting a seasoned commanding officer against a subordinate upstart, is more about the grey areas.
It’s scripted by source novelist Herman Wouk (who also died recently), whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book was previously adapted for the screen in 1954’s Humphrey Bogart starrer. This iteration is based on Wouk’s stage adaptation, and despite a shift from WWII manoeuvres to the Persian Gulf, this latest version makes few concessions to modern audiences. This is still a talky, old-fashioned drama, which plays out like an extended Columbo episode (even the chunky title card feels like an '80s throwback). But there are chuckles to be had at the execution, thanks to a game cast.
Set almost exclusively in a US naval court (a final scene happens in a hotel), it reveals that the Caine Mutiny in question occurred during a 2022 incident in the Strait of Hormuz, when a mine-sweeping ship under Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) hit a cyclone storm; during the subsequent struggle to control the boat, a battle of wills emerged. Questioning Queeg’s mental health, executive officer Maryk (Jake Lacy) invoked US Navy Article 1108 to assume control of the vessel - possibly treasonous behaviour that could result in a 15-year sentence if he’s found guilty.
A lawyer-come-naval pilot on sick leave, Greenwald (Jason Clarke), is brought in as defence, up against prosecution counsel Challee (Monica Raymund). What truly happened that fateful night? As witnesses are brought forward in a court presided over by Captain Bailey (Lance Reddick, also RIP), the audience must decide who is telling the truth…
The bad news: if you’ve seen the Bogart movie, there are few surprises here, though the cast brings a certain modernity to the text. The good news: Sutherland (and his worry marbles), is more aw-shucks than Bogart, a sweetheart Midwesterner who unleashes draconian hell on his crew and dissembles with touching alacrity. Clarke, meanwhile, is more louche than José Ferrer’s buttoned-down Greenwald, and more entertaining for it. There’s also amusement to be had from strawberry/coffee/water-related business – the source of disenfranchisement, orchestrated by Friedkin in stately fashion.
But this ultimately feels like a story that didn’t need remaking, with performances that would have tickled in a one-night view on Broadway. It’s Friedkin’s swan song, yes, but is it representative of his output? Probably not.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial's release date is TBC.