William Friedkin's final film sees Jason Clarke act as a reluctant naval lawyer in a highly irregular case, attempting to prove the innocence of a sailor accused of mutiny.
A title card quoting William Friedkin preceded the Venice premiere of his final film, playing just a few weeks after his passing aged 87. “All of the films I have made, that I have chosen to make, are all about the thin line between good and evil. And also the thin line that exists in each and every one of us. That’s what my films are about.” the screen read. It’s fitting that his final film should speak to this summary – The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial concerns a sailor accused of acting against his superior officer, who maintains he believes the man to have been mentally unfit during a time of crisis.
Based on Herman Wouk’s stage play (in turn adapted from his 1951 novel) but updated to the present day, this chamber piece sees Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke) tasked with defending the accused Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy) who faces 15 years in military custody if found guilty. Greenwald is reluctant to do so, largely because he thinks Maryk did mutiny against Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (Keifer Sutherland). Still, he faces off against the prosecution, headed by Commander Katherine Challee (Monica Raymund) in a court overseen by the formidable Captain Luther Blakely (Lance Reddick) to try and get to the truth of the matter.
Queeg initially seems to be a firm but fair man. He claims to have inherited an unruly ship when he took his post aboard the USS Caine and has done everything in his power to bring his men to heel. This has made him unpopular, particularly with his officers, Lieutenants Maryk, Keefer (Lewis Pullman) and Keith (Tom Riley). They are all called up to give evidence of Queeg’s supposed incompetence, which ranges from punitive punishments to a wild goose chase involving cheese theft (“He’s living the cheese business all over again” is a choice line of dialogue). Yet this is all completely compelling to watch – as is the grand tradition of courtroom dramas, the audience becomes the jury as well, silently weighing the evidence and assessing each witness’s credibility.
Visually the film doesn’t have a lot going on. It’s quite staid (even though Friedkin worked with Bug cinematographer Michael Grady) and as the action takes place almost entirely within a single room at the US Naval headquarters in San Francisco with no score, the austere atmosphere does mean there’s a lot of pressure on the cast’s shoulders. But Jason Clarke commands the screen with a steely-eyed determination. Greenwald seems unflappable, and his supposed reluctance to take the case doesn’t stop him fighting like hell. Raymund provides a worthy opponent – there’s a sense of history between the pair as they parry and counter – and the sight of the late, great Lance Reddick (to whom the film is also dedicated) is bittersweet, as his deep timbre and inscrutable expression add a real gravitas. Lewis Pullman deserves a shout-out too, fast becoming a chameleonic actor who can sell mild manners and hidden agendas with ease.
This is Friedkin’s second film about a court-martial, following the widely panned Rules of Engagement in 2000. Throughout his career, the filmmaker was fascinated by tales of lawmakers, lawbreakers, cops and military men. This relates back to Friedkin’s own assessment of his work being about the thin line that exists between good and evil, particularly within humans – where better to explore that within the setting of a closed courtroom, where men and women argue over events where the only evidence is testimony and a sworn oath to a God they may or may not believe in?
At the end of the trial, Greenwald admonishes the offices in a furious monologue, delivered with signature intensity by Clarke. He expresses admiration for Queeg, and the men of his generation who served their country “during peacetime”, prior to the influx of enlistments that came with the War on Terror. But Greenwald himself hardly comes across as a bastion of moral goodness, and it seems this is a hint he too is becoming a man out of time. Perhaps that’s all of our fates. As always, Friedkin leaves it up to us to wrestle with the implications of his narrative. Nothing is ever black and white in his idiosyncratic worlds, or indeed the one we live in. But this much is true: we’re all the poorer for having lost him as a filmmaker.
Published 3 Sep 2023
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