William Friedkin’s final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, feels just a little thin. Despite what we know is in his bag of directing tricks from his previous films, this one lacked a dramatic vision and alienates the audience with its desire to be completely objective.
Based on Herman Wouk’s play (itself based on Wouk’s own novel), the story follows the officers aboard the USS Caine and shows us Lt. Commander Queeg’s (Kiefer Sutherland) bizarre behavior which eventually leads to the mutiny and subsequent court martial of Lieutenant Maryk (Jake Lacy). Like the play, Friedkin’s adaptation chooses only to adapt the court martial proceedings and not the events leading up to it.
But the reason why the content of the play is more appropriate than in the movie is because the mediums operate under different suspensions of disbelief. When watching a play you are the direct subject to which the actors are performing. During a movie the actors are confined and edited to be performing between each other and not to a larger audience, therefore the audience has to be brought in emotionally by other means. Directors find ways of inviting the audience’s empathy by utilizing cinematic tools, and without them a production can feel lacking in drama.
Assuming Friedkin knew the result of keeping his production minimal and concise, being one of the great American directors (The French Connection and The Exorcist speak for themselves), it’s not outlandish to make such an assumption. I think his choice to maintain a semblance of objectivity is meant to serve as a recognition of uncertainty.
But regardless of the facts and arguments presented by the main characters, there’s no way to be certain of the events and motivations that resulted in the mutiny. Was Maryk really acting in the best interest of the crew, or was he just a bitter young man who had an ax to grind with his commander?
It’s a story about duty and respect for a system to which you’ve given your service. Fitting for a story about the military but it has a different air than the typical pro military movies that we’re used to. There’s no flash, no propagandistic flair to try and lull us into a state of patriotism. The story plays itself very straight with little to no cinematic exaggeration and its narrative and thematic weight are entirely held up by the performances.
While fantastic as they are, Sutherland in particular plays a tremendous balance between authoritative and pitiable, I think the actors are having to carry too much of the film’s message and in the end there’s a bit of a missed opportunity to get the audience invested. Greenwald is meant to be our point of emotional reference but without more focus on his perspective we can’t comprehend the seriousness with which the characters talk about the situation.
Ultimately, there isn’t enough visual communication. The message is laid bare and as lean as possible but that coldness removes the potential for sympathy. It’s difficult to feel the impact of what the court-martial means until Luther Blakley (Lance Reddick) states it directly. In turn it can feel like the movie is talking at the audience instead of talking to them.
Even in the final scene with Greenwald, his message sobering and humanizing the men in uniform, fails to elicit much force. To the characters it means the world as their lives are now forever changed due to these actions; but to the audience something so important is missing.
For Friedkin, who respects the military but feels it’s misunderstand, it’s not simply a war machine and not just a defense force, but a mass collective of citizens; our neighbors and our families. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial wants us to show more sympathy for those who went into battle when asked, but with the production coming off so constricted it loses the ability to communicate this effectively.