Marc Carlini/Paramount+ with Showtime
In the 1970s, Hollywood was awakened from its slumber by a group of brilliant, difficult, sometimes crazy filmmakers, including Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Elaine May. This band of easy riders and raging bulls, to borrow the title of Peter Biskind’s book, placed cinema at the center of American culture.
One of the wildest bulls, William Friedkin, died on August 7 at the age of 87. Friedkin became a superstar director thanks to two hugely influential hits: The French connection And The Exorcist, whose 50th anniversary is this year. These films popularized a visceral, direct style of cinema that too many directors have since adopted. But like many in this age of hubris, Friedkin went too far. After his 1977 thriller Wizard After a failure, he spent the decades that followed making films – some interesting, others not – without really catching up with the times.
Few things could seem less zeitgeisty than his latest film, The Court Martial of the Caine Mutiny. Launching this week on Paramount+ and Showtime, it is an updated version of a play adapted from the 1951 novel by Herman Wouk, himself the source of the 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart. While Wouk’s original story centered on events aboard a naval ship in the Pacific of World War II, Friedkin’s film is a straightforward legal drama about a naval mutiny in what is now the Persian Gulf. .
Jake Lacy, who you will know The White Lotusplays Lieutenant Steve Maryk, the honest and fresh first officer of the USS Cain. He is accused of mutinously ousting the ship’s captain, Philip Francis Queeg – that is, Kiefer Sutherland – during a typhoon that threatened to sink the ship. Maryk is defended by Lieutenant Barney Greenwald – this is Jason Clarke, who recently played the role of the evil Inquisitor in Oppenheimer – a Navy lawyer who was essentially ordered to take on the case.
And so the trial continues, with the prosecutor – played by a steely Monica Raymund – calling witnesses to demonstrate that Captain Queeg was fit to command. In response, Greenwald seeks to show the court, led by the late Lance Reddick in his final screen role, that Queeg is, in fact, a compulsive petty bully who cracks under pressure. Essentially, Queeg is also on trial.
Although heavy, The Court Martial of the Caine Mutiny is the kind of well-oiled theatrical vehicle that actors love to be a part of. Always sly, Sutherland finds a sympathetic side to Captain Queeg that the saturnine Bogart did not find. Lacy deftly tiptoes the line between Maryk being honorable and gullible. And Clarke bristles like Greenwald, who is upset that in order to save Maryk, he’ll have to destroy Queeg.
The original story resonated in 1950s America, where countless ordinary men, like Wouk himself, had served in World War II and knew the life-and-death stakes of commanders’ decisions in the war theater. Peaceful. But this version takes place in the Persian Gulf with an all-volunteer navy and no naval battles. There is no current emergency. The only thing that feels truly modern is the diversity of the cast.
Although Friedkin made his name with films that made you work, he was actually a learned man who was interested in the world around him. What drew him to this story was not, I think, a fascination with military justice in World War II or in the Gulf. Rather, the film is seen as an elaborate metaphor, an old man’s oblique commentary on a contemporary society that he believes does not like to grapple with the messy complexity of human behavior and the elusiveness of truth; a society that is quick to judge individuals harshly, ignoring the totality of their actions and condemning their offenses, even minor ones.
Perhaps this is another way of saying that the film is personal. Even though Peak Friedkin was closer to Captain Ahab than Captain Queeg, he knew what it was like to be called a tyrant and a monomaniac and to be attacked for the politics of some of his films. Given his own checkered career, it seems fitting that his farewell film deals with the slippery morality of those who cast the first stone.