‘The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial’: Friedkin’s Conviction Shines Through

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Somewhere, at any given moment, there’s a film director adapting a stage play to the big screen. Yet it’s rare, and fascinating, to see a filmmaker steeped to the gills in cinema as cinema who also has a grand obsession with the theater. Robert Altman was like that. His great films of the ’70s were so naturalistic they seemed to dissolve the edges of the movie frame, yet in the ’80s, starting with “Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” he adapted nine plays in a row, the last of which, in 1988, was a darkly solid made-for-TV version of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.”

William Friedkin, the legendary director who passed away last month, just before his 88th birthday, represents another case like Altman’s. In the early ’70s, when Friedkin commandeered Hollywood and the world with the extraordinary one-two punch of “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist (1973), there wasn’t a film director alive more aggressively, enthrallingly, ferociously cinematic. He took the cop movie right out into the streets, with a grit and grime that were unprecedented, making it feel like a documentary. And he made a horror film so viscerally upsetting and technologically astonishing that 50 years later it still haunts people.

And yet…Friedkin, for all his virtuosic kinesthetic vérité zap, was very much in thrall to the theater. He established his reputation with two ace stage adaptations: “The Birthday Party” (1968) and “The Boys in the Band” (1970), the latter of which, though it received criticism for presenting a vision of gay life that quickly become as dated as it once seemed cutting edge, has now, ironically, stood the test of time. (Friedkin staged it with a flair and humanity that still shine through.) And starting in the ’90s, Friedkin reconnected with the theater, first with a TV version of “12 Angry Men” (1997), followed by two films he adapted from the plays of Tracy Letts, “Bug” (2006) and “Killer Joe” (2011). So it feels fitting, if not a little poetic, that Friedkin’s final film, completed shortly before his death, is his own version of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” which premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival.

Is it a good movie? It’s the definition of no frills: one set (the courtroom), head-on lighting, shot language and editing that walk the line between elegant and minimal. The play, which Herman Wouk originally adapted from his own 1951 novel, has been reworked by Friedkin, who transplants the setting from World War II to post-9/11 America. Yet “The Caine Mutiny,” for all the tinkering, remains a warhorse of a play. And that’s both a good and a limited thing.

The way Friedkin has directed it, it certainly plays. The courtroom showdown is built on currents of aggression, which Friedkin taps right into, and he keeps his actors poised in a kind of trim fury. Jason Clarke, as Lt. Greenwald, the defense attorney who knows how to keep his prey off balance, and the late Lance Reddick, as the judge (Reddick makes even the most neutral court orders hypnotic), are especially sharp. But whether “The Caine Mutiny,” unlike “12 Angry Men,” is actually about anything that’s still relevant, except in the most abstract way, is seriously up for debate.

Once again, we’re led through the chronicle of a mutiny aboard the USS Caine, a Navy mine-sweeper patrolling the Persian Gulf — but a mutiny that may not, in fact, have been a mutiny. At the center of the incident is Lieutenant Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland), the old-school disciplinarian who has had assorted conflicts with his men, most stemming from what they regard as his extreme authoritarian nature. During a typhoon, when Queeg ordered the Caine to go south to escape the high winds, Lieutenant Maryk (Jake Lacy) relieved him of his command, steering the ship north. Maryk is being court-martialed for his action. The court must decide: Did he act rashly, or was Queeg of unsound mind and therefore unfit for command?

Friedkin had long wanted to make a movie of “The Caine Mutiny.” But why? One can speculate, and two potential motivations jump out at me. The first relates to the speech at the end, delivered by Clarke’s Lt. Greenwald, which comes more or less directly from novel — but which has a different thrust in the contemporary setting. It’s all about ambiguity, the absence of black-and-white, and casts the drama we’ve been watching almost as a military-courtroom “Rashomon.” Queeg, who has been condemned by the trial, represents the stern, fanatical, possibly heartless heart of the military establishment. Friedkin is saying: There’s a place for that, so don’t judge it so quickly.

In that sense, this “Caine Mutiny” positions itself as the anti-“A Few Good Men,” the play in which Aaron Sorkin brilliantly reworked “The Caine Mutiny,” reconfiguring it into his (I would argue) theatrically superior drama. Part of what gave the movie version of “A Few Good Men” its doctrinaire liberal power is that after letting Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessep have his say as the defender of the homeland who does the Merciless Things No One Back Home Wants To Know About, it tugged the rug out from under that argument. This new “Caine Mutiny” doesn’t do that — it has a greater sympathy for Queeg’s ideology — and that ties into the side of Friedkin that was skeptical of liberalism, anti-PC, maybe a little reactionary.

The other reason I suspect he wanted to make the movie is that I sense he had a personal identification with Queeg. In the weeks since he died, there have been many moving testimonials to William Friedkin’s life and art, and many of those who knew him, especially in the later years, describe what a generous mentor he could be. But it bears stating that decades ago, in his glory days, when he was coming off “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” Friedkin had a fiercely intimidating reputation as a director who was, let’s just say, not the easiest man in the world to work with. He was known as an obsessive adherent to achieving his vision by any means necessary. You might say that there was a Queeg-like aspect to him.

Maybe that’s why he pulls such an accomplished, sympathetic performance out of Kiefer Sutherland, who makes Queeg a less formidable, more relatable figure than Humphrey Bogart did in the 1954 Hollywood version. Sutherland’s Queeg, who has been in the Navy since 9/11, is a man who has reasons for everything. He’s compulsive, intractable, eaten up by his ideals. Another way to say that is that he’s someone who believes — as Friedkin did, perhaps — that the world needs its fearsome, hellacious, domineering types. I could use a far more abrasive word, but you get the point.

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