The late William Friedkin hits a home run with “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” a modern-day adaptation of the 1951 novel “The Caine Mutiny,” which spawned the 1954 big-screen classic starring Humphrey Bogart as Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg, he of the nervously-twirled metal balls and questionable sanity.
The movie premieres Oct. 6 on Paramount+ with Showtime (paramountplus.qflm.net/9WG5D0) — and Oct. 8 on Showtime (9 p.m.) — and features an all-star cast, including Kiefer Sutherland as Queeg and the late Lance Reddick, all of whom deliver bravura performances. It’s akin to watching a riveting play filmed for the big (and small) screens.
(“The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” premiered in early September at the Venice International Film Festival about a month after Friedkin died at the age of 87.)
You’ll be absorbed from the opening scene through the final denouement: a drunken, on-point semi-soliloquy delivered by defense attorney Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke) that sums up the multi-layered emotions laid bare over the preceding 103 minutes.
Friedkin, acclaimed for “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection,” among others, updates Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by placing the incident in question in the Persian Gulf in December 2022 aboard the USS Caine, a minesweeper. The action takes place entirely in the courtroom; there are no flashback sequences here, just lots of dialogue, which renders the effect more impressive. It’s like listening to a radio broadcast and imagining the action that’s being described — in this case “Old Yellow Stain” Queeg’s allegedly unstable, paranoid behavior during a cyclone, and executive officer Lt. Stephen Maryk’s (Jake Lacy) commandeering of the Caine, resulting in the titular court martial. (He faces 15 years in the brig if found guilty.)
After a brief interaction between Maryk and his attorney Greenwald — who’s ambivalent about the case and would rather be aboard his ship — the action opens with Queeg taking the stand or, in this case, a chair in the center of the courtroom. There, he’s questioned by Commander Katherine Challee (Monica Raymund), the lead prosecutor who thinks she’s got a slam-dunk case against Maryk.
Queeg is an outsized personality and Sutherland fills his shiny black shoes nicely, initially sans the soul-crushing personality tics coming down the pike; no metal balls yet but Queeg constantly fidgets with his thumbs and forefingers as he confidently paints Maryk as a panicky coward. He’s testifying to a jury of one: head judge Captain Luther Blakely (Reddick), who does all the talking and makes all the decisions from that side of the courtroom. (The others beside him, all dressed in Naval uniforms, don’t utter a word throughout but “act” suitably intense.)
There follows a parade of witnesses for the defense, including smug, part-time novelist Lt. Thomas Keefer (Lewis Pullman); the clueless, dim-bulb Quartermaster, Urban (Gabe Kessler); and assistant communications officer Lt. Willis Keith (Tom Riley), who calls Queeg “a petty tyrant.” They all give their version of the events, when Maryk and Queeg clashed over the direction in which to take the Caine during the cyclone and Maryk’s “mutinous” takeover of the ship. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg; Queeg comes out smelling like a rose after testimony from two Naval psychiatrists (Elizabeth Anweis, Jay Duplass) — who declare him sane and fit for duty — and after Challee’s withering laceration of the men testifying, under oath, on Maryk’s behalf.
Maryk himself does not take the chair until an hour into “The Caine Mutiny-Court Martial”; he’s both defiant and confident in his narrative, brilliantly choreographed by his defense attorney, Greenwald, that even before the cyclone, Queeg exhibited signs of mental illness, obsessive behavior, nastiness, and even extortion including incidents involving a shorted-out coffee maker, rationed water during a dust storm, pilfered strawberries and contraband he tried, unsuccessfully, to sneak aboard the Caine.
But it’s when Queeg returns for his cross-examination by Greenwald, and gradually melts down on the stand, that “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” kicks into high gear as Queeg descends into Shakespearean-tragedy mode and Sutherland deftly portrays his battered psyche, by turns pathetic and admirable, that imbue the narrative with its ambiguous tone.