Venice 2023: William Friedkin’s ‘The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial’ Film
by Alex Billington
September 7, 2023
Returning to screens again is another retelling of classic story about The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, this time being retold by a master filmmaker. This fresh, new 2023 version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is, sadly, the very final film from talented filmmaker William Friedkin. He finished it just before he passed away in August this year, and it still went on to premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival anyway. It’s the epitome of a play-as-a-film, set entirely in one court room devoid of any flashbacks or recreations scenes or anything else. It’s purely conversations and interviews, and it’s riveting as all hell. I’ll fully admit I’m often one to harshly criticize plays turned into films, usually insisting they belong only on stage. This one won me over completely. I was caught up in it, adsorbed in the story, with a set of terrific performances that made all the difference. It’s also not just a repeat of the original story, it’s updated for modern times with a specific contextual reference that – if you read between the lines – becomes apparent pretty quickly.
Friedkin’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is yet another adaptation – based on Herman Wouk’s 1953 play of the same name, itself based on the novel The Caine Mutiny, also written by Wouk. It was adapted for the screen a few other times before, including initially in 1954 as simply The Caine Mutiny starring Humphrey Bogart; and again in 1988, as an acclaimed made-for-TV film, directed by Robert Altman. (Note: I have not yet seen any of these other films based on the story, though now I am quite curious to watch both of them.) Friedkin’s update keeps most of the original elements intact – it’s about the trial (or military court martial) of officer Steve Maryk, who commandeered & took control of the USS Caine (a US Navy minesweeper ship operating in the Middle East), relieving Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg in December when they were stuck inside of a typhoon. Kiefer Sutherland co-stars as Queeg, with Jake Lacy as Mayrk, and Jason Clarke as his assigned defense attorney. These are the three strongest performances, along with Lance Reddick (who also passed away before this premiered) starring as Captain Luther Blakely, the head judge.
I’m just going to come right out and say it – this Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is about Donald Trump. Yes, indeed. Sutherland’s take on Queeg is a depiction of this unhinged, lunatic politician. (Though that “lunacy” is something that’s discussed in detail at the trial.) His mannerisms, voice, and wildly deranged responses to some questions are exact impersonations. The film is actually operating as a giant metaphor for the January 6th U.S. Capitol attack. The mutiny isn’t about the deranged attackers at the Capitol, they are actually the typhoon. Queeg’s response to this typhoon is what is being analyzed and discussed within the story, with the underlings in his cabinet being represented by the officers aboard the ship. Maryk’s mutiny is essentially a hypothetical, philosophical look at – what if Trump-Queeg hadn’t been stopped, getting crazier during this event, ending up sinking the entire ship and killing the crew. The conversations from all involved offer us a compelling inside look at the “is he really insane?” debate, along with wondering: was it just to remove him and get the ship to safety or was that all for nothing. It’s fascinating to see how this court marital plays out once you understand this context. Yep it’s all really in there – this is precisely what is being commented on.
On one hand, I might wonder why this cast would want to get together to shoot a simple film like this in one room, working with Friedkin. It was shot in early 2023, with Guillermo del Toro serving as back-up director on the film for liability reasons, sitting beside him every day during the shoot. On the other hand, it’s so obvious why they wanted to work with Friedkin; they gave it their all, turning this into something special. It really stands out, and deserves to be seen by as many viewers as possible. It feels even more powerful and invigorating than it should be. Even without much going on cinematically, it’s an unforgettable experience – anyone who watches will be thinking about it and many of the points brought up. The cinematography by Michael Grady is actually engaging, with a few clever camera angles. Most of all, the intelligent back-and-forth arguments are tantalizing to watch and engage with. There’s plenty to make you think, plenty to argue about after the film is over. This is always the mark of a truly great film. As the grand finale of his excellent career, Friedkin’s film final is a powerful statement to go out on. And yes – Maryk deserves to be acquitted.
Alex’s Venice 2023 Rating: 8 out of 10
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