The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which takes place almost entirely within a courtroom, has almost no score, but the cast makes up the soundscape. They are the instruments and the script is the notes they play. The story started life as a novel by Herman Wouk that was then adapted into a 1954 film with Humphrey Bogart, both titled The Caine Mutiny. This film is more specifically an adaptation of Wouk’s 1953 play, The Caine Mutiny *Court-Martial* (emphasis mine). Wouk’s novel and the 1954 adaptation show the mutiny, initiated by Lieutenant Maryk (played now by Jake Lacy) against Lieutenant Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland), and the court martial.
Wouk’s 1953 play, conversely, only shows us the court-martial. The new film’s director, the late William Friedkin, eschews traditional notions of “show don’t tell” with this decision: instead of showing the mutiny the way the 1954 adaptation did, he looks to Wouk’s 1953 play to let the testimony of each character show something about themselves. The volume, the brevity (or lack thereof) with which they speak, are all essential to the characterization. Some characters, like Lieutenant Keefer (Lewis Pullman) remain tense but composed during their cross-examination. Others, like the Quartermaster Third Class (Junius Urban) stumble their way through their line of questioning, needing basic details—like the obvious context of certain questions—spelled out. The most essential character to understand the film’s underlying themes and narrative, however, would be Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke), Maryk’s attorney. The film’s unique tension kicks off with the first scene, where a flustered, pacing Greenwald tells his client, “I think you’re guilty as shit.”
By establishing Greenwald outside the courtroom in this flustered manner, you wonder exactly how good he’ll be at defending Maryk. His first few actions during the trial supplement this, as they seem both counterintuitive and inefficient. When Queeg is brought out as a witness for the prosecution, Greenwald asks but one question: if Queeg was aware of the nickname the crew had for him, “Old Yellowstain.” He then tells the head Judge, Captain Luther Blakely (the late, great Lance Reddick) that he will bring Queeg as a witness for the defense, and save the questions for then. Still, at least Greenwald intends to cross-examine Queeg, unlike the next witness, the previously mentioned Keefer. Keefer is not just a friend of Maryk’s, nor just a key witness, but perhaps the key witness, and Greenwald won’t cross-examine him at all.
While Greenwald’s actions in the courtroom seem counterintuitive and in keeping with his behavior outside the courtroom, unlike that opening scene, he’s not flustered. He’s completely in control of himself and maintains a compelling composure. His “Old Yellowstain” question seems odd, but it’s asked with certainty. He may frustrate his client when he refuses to cross-examine Keefer, but he assures his client he’s looking out for him. We’re led to believe that he’s not only doing his best, but that this best is worth something. He is confident.
This confidence wins him no friends from either the prosecution, led by Commander Katherine Challee (Monica Raymond) or the panel of judges. Challee is a concise, thorough, and relentless foe. She has evidence. She has witnesses who aren’t merely relevant, but experts in their field, such as psychologists who provide insight into the extent at which someone can have psychological weaknesses and have those weaknesses not be deemed debilitating. Above all, though, she has the will to fight. The way Challee sees it, she’s not just doing her job as a prosecutor: she’s fighting for her country.
It’s here that the film delves into questionable territory, morally. There’s a sense of absolute, total devotion to the military, which will win over a certain demographic. The film is very much a Dad movie: if you have a father in his 60’s, as I do, you should recommend this movie to your father, as I recommended it to mine. The issue here is a question of how far this military devotion should go. You might leave the film thinking that Queeg’s character was justifiably called out and that he has psychological issues that have been fundamentally ignored by the military culture embracing him. You might sympathize with him, but he almost certainly needs help. There’s a sense that the film wants you to believe this, and then, arguably, smacks you on the head for admitting such a treasonous thought. It’s like Friedkin and Wouk are disingenuously smiling as they ask you, “Yeah, you like that, huh? You agree with that, huh? Well you shouldn’t, you ungrateful rodent.”
However you might feel about the direction the film goes, we can’t reflect on this direction without reflecting on its late director. William Friedkin had to bring on director Guillermo Del Toro as insurance for the production, should he pass before he finished filming (he passed afterwards). He presumably had health issues, and presumably knew this could be his last movie — even if it wasn’t a certainty. He also updated Wouk’s script, modernizing it, and so he could have theoretically altered the these-damn-youngsters-don’t-respect-us-oldies elements if he so wished. He didn’t, and while you might find the film morally questionable, you also might be okay with that, just as some of us are okay with our conservative Grandpas.
We don’t agree with them, but we can love them. And we can miss them. If nothing else, William Friedkin, a man who left an unalterable impact on Hollywood cinema, will be missed. If his final word to the world had to be a reactionary one, then god bless that final word for being as thrilling and masterfully crafted as The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.