The last works by artists who have just died often acquire a strange patina of significance. Whether the deceased knew the work would be their last or not, it’s almost impossible not to read into them a foreshadowing of the maker’s imminent departure, a railing against the dying of the light or a tidy return to earlier themes.
The storied director William Friedkin passed on Aug. 7 at the age of 87, just weeks after he completed his last feature film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. I don’t know if Friedkin was aware this would be his last when he decided to make it, but it does feel like a fitting final artistic word in many ways. Like so many of his other movies, it’s pithy, punchy, a little shouty at times, but made with brio and swagger.
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From the earliest days of his filmmaking career, he was drawn to theatrical material. His second feature was an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1968, and that was followed by a successful transition for the Broadway hit The Boys in the Band (1970) and, more recently, two arresting, innovative plays by writer Tracy Letts, Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011).
Reportedly, Friedkin had wanted for some time to film a version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which writer Herman Wouk adapted for the stage himself from his own novel back in the early 1950s. The best-known iteration of the material is probably the 1954 film directed by blacklisted Hollywood Ten-member Edward Dmytryk, starring Humphrey Bogart, which draws from the more expansive plot of the original book.
This adaptation — its action reframed in 2022 instead of the WWII setting of the original and its screenplay credited to Friedkin — updates the courtroom drama portion that Wouk also carved out for the stage. The nub of the narrative is a court martial for a naval officer named Maryk (Jake Lacy), whose decision to relieve his superior officer, Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland), is seen as an act of mutiny by the prosecution.
In classic liberal humanist style, the case is resolved in favor of one set of characters, but the final moral reckoning can’t be easily reduced to a binary, black-and-white, guilty-or-not-guilty verdict — an ambivalence expressed in a grandstanding final speech by defense lawyer Greenwald (Jason Clarke). It’s not hard to posit that perhaps Friedkin — an opinionated character who railed against bigotry and prejudice as well as PC piety — was drawn to this nuanced drama because of its uneasy conclusion, which arrives with the abruptness of a drink thrown in a face, followed by a hard cut to the final credits, oddly but not unpleasantly accompanied by Boz Skaggs’ funky disco 1976 hit ‘Lowdown.’ (Uh, okay?)
The original 1950s agonizing over means and ends, bad men who may deserve forgiveness and righteous acts done for wrong reasons still comes through in this adaptation. That said, the updating to a contemporary time frame is less successful. Instead of the WWII setting of Wouk’s original, preserved in the Bogart-Dmytryk film and most of the well-known stage versions (including Robert Altman’s TV film of the play from 1988), Friedkin has the Caine sweeping for mines in the Strait of Hormuz, not the Pacific theater of war, in peacetime, which puts everything in a very different light.
The stakes are less life-and-death, and it’s not clear what the shift in period achieves — except that it makes more sense of the diverse casting here, which might not seem realistic in a 1945 setting, given the discrimination and outright racism in the U.S. military services at the time. In the role of Captain Blakely, essentially the chief judge at the court martial, Friedkin has cast the recently deceased Lance Reddick, to whom the film is dedicated. Reddick gifts the work with a performance full of gravitas and intelligence. Casting Monica Raymund in the role of prosecutor Commander Challee changes the dynamic of Challee’s verbal sparring with Greenwald in all kinds of interesting ways, especially as Challee is the play’s fiercest upholder of protocol, rules and tradition, an interesting position for a woman in the military. But the committed cast is uniformly excellent and go at the chewy courtroom confrontations with style. Friedkin gets up close and personal in the cross examinations, and Lacy and Sutherland offer up beautifully detailed turns.
Nevertheless, the translation to 2022 doesn’t always work in the dialogue, especially when phrases like “doesn’t know shit from Shinola” slip through the net. Most boomers don’t even know what Shinola is, and the mention of it may prompt the unkind thought that this play, well performed and executed as it is here, is a bit of a relic that speaks only obliquely to audiences today.
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