William Friedkin’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a final cry of olde — a stripped-down but stylized last film that announces its intentions and uses a lean visual form to hurry everything along. The film serves itself in four sections; or perhaps more usefully, in four separate acts of cowardice. Section one consists of a series of testimonies, beginning with LCDR Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) and followed by witnesses from the U.S.S. Caine’s bridge, where Lt. Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy) allegedly invoked mutiny in order to commandeer the Caine in the midst of a colossal cyclone storm. This section is followed by cross-examination from Lt. Maryk, before LCDR Queeg is called back to the stand, which is formally engaged with in a distraught closing argument and more personally engaged with in the film’s epilogue. The crux of this court-martial is on two fronts: the defendant Maryk is charged with mutiny and faces extensive prison time, while Maryk’s attorney, Lt. Greenwald (Jason Clarke), aims to deflect criticism from Lt. Maryk and toward LCDR Queeg in order to indirectly indict him of a “paranoid personality” that could frame him as unfit for command.
The first cowardice is of the witness, a third party with third party interests. Lt. Keefer (Lewis Pullman) is a writer who exchanges support between Maryk and Queeg. Another witness, Urban (Gabe Kessler), meanwhile, is a dullard of the highest order; his testimony is riotously funny and yet completely baffling in watching him doggy-paddle out of this military proceeding. Finally, Willie Keith (Tom Riley) details what he deems to be mistreatment of the men by Queeg, but is unable to substantiate these claims beyond the impression of his contradictory moping. Through this section, it becomes increasingly clear after each testimony that the degree of truth needed to act on the Caine’s crisis is not present in these third parties, who are emboldened by hatred over military code. Friedkin draws out this collapse of order through agonizing methods: the stiffness of military discipline is frequently shattered through reaction shots that are likely to make viewers jump or bug-eye at their sheer audacity. Queeg’s testimonies, especially via the third cowardice, play out in achingly unwavering long takes, never failing to break gaze upon his quivering and fumbling of hands, almost as if watching a disastrous collision in extreme slow-motion. Fidgeting and restrained truth-telling are commonplace in the first section, and by section three these behaviors evolve as if Queeg is being puppeteered by a young child. Contradictory testimony and feigned lapses in memory slow Queeg’s testimony to a crawl, and ultimately kill the court’s desire to uphold military regulation.
The counterpoint to this collapse is Capt. Blakely (Lance Reddick, in his final, spectacular performance), who has a strict demeanor while still granting significant leeway for dissection of called witnesses. Blakely is the discipline in counterpoint to the suffering of the Caine’s crew, yet he possesses both order and destruction, preventing any firm tug in either direction. Greenwald may be orchestrating the indictment of Queeg, but at every instance of resistance from the prosecution, nobody is there to answer the call for military rank and file. Blakely lightly reprimands outrageous behavior after multiple extended badgerings, and it all goes to finally prove that everyone is their own worst enemy. Queeg’s final testimony is akin to disaster footage in scale; it’s not the collapse of a moment we witness, but the accumulated mistakes of over 20 years of prattling leadership that casts this scene as much grander than its duration.
In Hollywood’s long history of military court-martials, discipline has stood firm in the face of reason. One traditional representation is Otto Preminger’s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, where the foundation for self-preservation is initially set up: Mitchell (Gary Cooper) outlines all human reason and technological understanding, going so far as to precisely predict Pearl Harbor’s attack in front of the court, all before he is swiftly defeated and shoved into disgrace. If Lt. Maryk functions here as our Brigadier General Mitchell, then it just goes to show the distance between the real life Billy Mitchell’s court-martial in 1925 and Maryk as portrayed in the 21st century. Where Mitchell’s fight against discipline is always lost, Maryk looks like a god among men. Greenwald builds him up to skyscraper proportions, and the prosecution tries to demolish said skyscraper by throwing tomatoes. In the end, even the skyscraper is proven as another cowardice – second in line – when Greenwald dismantles Maryk as a moron taking the brunt of punishment for Keefer’s gain.
“So long, ya bastard,” says Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) at the end of John Ford’s final film, 7 Women. The medical doctor does something remarkably profound — she takes an oath to preserve human life. The strong are shown to be cowards and vice versa, but what’s most dear is victorious through immediate contradiction. To some, going down with the ship may seem romantic, but others may see this as the coward’s way out. There’s no such distinction in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Friedkin does give his own “so long, ya bastard,” but he blows up the ship and everyone on it. In Greenwald’s final scene, the fourth cowardice, he sings the praises of the craven Queeg, because before The Caine’s row in the Strait of Hormuz, Queeg had dedicated himself to a service that he deemed just. More specifically, Greenwald gives praise to the men who were ready in response to 9/11. They didn’t know that the war they would engage in would be for naught, but they arrived at the conclusion that this was the right thing to do and they gave it their all. As his final film, there is a sadness in seeing Friedkin persecute this band of young losers and defend a different, older loserhood. Ultimately, the director proves his entire ensemble as cowards who hold no interest in either truth or others, yet the political edge couldn’t be much duller. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial does not stand on any moral ground as did Ford, but instead resolves that people should believe in something, anything bigger than themselves.
DIRECTOR: William Friedkin; CAST: Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Clarke, Jake Lacy, Lance Reddick; DISTRIBUTOR: Showtime; STREAMING: October 6; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.