The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial review – William Friedkin’s final film looks for the truth

The ghosts of film history can be seen all over Venice, the city where Dirk Bogarde sat down in a deck-chair and died and Donald Sutherland was bewitched by the sight of a red raincoat. One spies their faces on black-and-white stills inside the main festival site and adorning celebratory posters positioned around town. They occasionally crop up on the movie schedule as well.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is the swansong film from director William Friedkin, completed just before his death last month and dedicated to the memory of its co-star, Lance Reddick, who died back in March. This is a forensic, exacting courtroom drama; stiffly tailored and a little unyielding; doggedly making a bonus of a claustrophobic single location. It’s not The Exorcist, Sorcerer or The French Connection. But it makes for a worthy late addition to the great director’s armada.

Taking its lead from the old Herman Wouk novel (previously adapted as a 1954 film with Humphrey Bogart), and the play that Wouk himself wrote, Friedkin’s picture rakes the coals of a crisis aboard the USS Caine, a mine-sweeper tasked with patrolling the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. A cyclone hit and the ship was rolled. Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) ordered the Caine to go south to escape the high winds. Lieutenant Mark (Jake Lacy) relieved him of his command and steered it north instead.

Was this a mutiny, or had Queeg grown unsound? Reddick, presiding over the hearing, sits behind his desk with a frowning concentration as various witnesses are brought in to testify. “My version is the complete truth,” insists Queeg and initially his story holds water. But there is a top-note of peevishness to his voice and he has a disconcerting habit of nervously crossing and re-crossing his thumbs. Maryk seems more plausible, but the man is callow and arrogant; the sort of precocious young upstart who likes to push back against authority.

Midway through the proceedings, we’re naturally anticipating a clarifying flashback, showing the crisis in the wheelhouse and perhaps the events that sparked it: some roiling, rain-spattered set-piece to break the metronomic rhythm of the court-martial hearings and definitively show us what occurred on the Caine. But that’s not the point; the film’s interest lies elsewhere. Truth, Friedkin tells us, is subjective and partial. Everybody’s to blame, admittedly some more than others, and so the best course of action is to settle back and draw our own conclusions, rocked by the cross-currents of conflicting testimonials. If his turbulent tale possesses anything approaching a moral compass, it is probably Greenwald, Maryk’s ingenious defence counsel, superbly played by Jason Clarke. Greenwald alone points the way out of this mess.

In the drama’s second half, Queeg is recalled. His crew-members have sworn that he’s hot-headed, paranoid. Now, belatedly, he starts to show it. He’s asked if it’s true that he once banned drinking water for two days in a dust storm, and conducted a 36-hour inquiry to find out who broke his coffee maker. The man is angry, flailing, beating back over past grievances - and yet even here, at Queeg’s greatest moment of weakness, Friedkin’s even-handed drama isn’t about to cut him loose. At one stage, the commander admits that yes, he did once lose his temper when the Caine’s weekly film screening was started without him, but only because he loves watching movies and was desperate to see the whole thing. A cinephile to his fingertips, Friedkin would no doubt have done much the same. That’s not a mark of the man’s guilt; it’s evidence of his virtue.

• The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial screened at the Venice film festival.