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William Friedkin's stodgy 'Caine Mutiny' adaptation lacks the urgency of the original

Lance Reddick, Dale Dye and Kiefer Sutherland in <em>The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.</em>
Marc Carlini
Paramount+ with Showtime
Lance Reddick, Dale Dye and Kiefer Sutherland in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.

Back in the 1970s, Hollywood was roused from its torpor by a collection of brilliant, difficult, occasionally berserk filmmakers, including Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Elaine May. This crew of easy riders and raging bulls, to borrow from the title of the book by Peter Biskind, pushed movies to the center of American culture.

One of the raging-est bulls, William Friedkin, died on Aug. 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 movies popularized a visceral, in-your-face style of filmmaking that too many directors have since embraced. But like many in that hubristic time, Friedkin overreached. After his 1977 thriller Sorcerer flopped, he spent the decades that followed making movies — some interesting, some not — yet never again caught the zeitgeist.

Few things could sound less zeitgeisty than his final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Launching this week on Paramount+ and Showtime, it's an updated version of a stage play adapted from Herman Wouk's 1951 novel, itself the source of the 1954 movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Where Wouk's original story centered on events aboard a navy ship in the World War II Pacific, Friedkin's movie is a bare-bones courtroom drama about a naval mutiny in the present-day Persian Gulf.

Jake Lacy, whom you'll know from The White Lotus, plays Lt. Steve Maryk, the honest, fresh-faced first officer of the U.S.S. Caine. He's charged with mutinously ousting the ship's captain, Philip Francis Queeg — that's Kiefer Sutherland — during a typhoon that threatened to sink the ship. Maryk is defended by Lt. Barney Greenwald — that's Jason Clarke, who recently played the villainous inquisitor in Oppenheimer— a naval lawyer who's been essentially ordered to handle the case.

And so the trial proceeds, with the prosecutor — played by a steely Monica Raymund — trotting out witnesses to demonstrate that Capt. 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 petty, compulsive tyrant who cracks under pressure. In essence, Queeg, too, is on trial.

Although stodgy, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is the kind of well-oiled theatrical vehicle that actors love being part of. Always sneaky good, Sutherland finds a likable side to Capt. Queeg that the saturnine Bogart didn't. Lacy deftly tiptoes the line between Maryk being honorable and credulous. And Clarke bristles as Greenwald, who's irked that, in order to save Maryk, he'll need to destroy Queeg.

The original story resonated in a '50s America where countless ordinary men, like Wouk himself, had served during World War II and knew the life-and-death stakes of commanders' decisions in the Pacific theater. But this version is set in the Persian Gulf with an all-volunteer navy and no sea battles. It has no present-day urgency. The only thing that feels truly modern is the diversity of the cast.

While Friedkin made his name with movies that worked you over, he was actually an erudite man interested in the world around him. What attracted him to this story is not, I think, a fascination with military justice in World War II or the Gulf. Rather, the film is better seen as an elaborate metaphor, an old man's oblique commentary on a contemporary society that, he feels, doesn't like to grapple with the messy complexity of human behavior and the elusiveness of truth; a society that rushes to harsh judgment of individuals, ignoring the totality of their deeds and condemning their trespasses, even minor ones.

Which may be another way of saying that the movie is personal. Although peak Friedkin was closer to Capt. Ahab than Capt. Queeg, he knew what it was like to be called a tyrant and monomaniac and be attacked for the politics of some of his movies. Given his own checkered career, it feels fitting that his valedictory film should be about the slippery morality of those who cast the first stone.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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