As Maryk tells it, the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland), showed signs of mental illness during a massive storm. The captain’s behavior, according to Maryk, put the crew’s lives in danger, leading Maryk to relieve him of duty. Doctors have examined Queeg and say he’s not mentally ill, and now it’s up to Greenwald to prove otherwise. To do so, the lawyer will call a group of witnesses to the stand while going head-to-head with an angry prosecutor (Monica Raymund, fiery and impressive) who takes issue with the defense attorney’s approach to the trial.
The dialogue crackles even when it has all the cadence of a courtroom transcript, all of it aided by a gaggle of stellar performances. Clarke’s role is tricky; there’s more to this defense attorney than meets the eye, and the way the actor plays his character’s inner turmoil is remarkable to watch. Then there’s Sutherland, who does some of the best work of his career here. He’s only briefly in the film, and yet he makes every second count, fidgeting with his hands and spitting his lines as if certain words pain him. He makes Queeg a complex, complicated man, not just a stock villain.
The beauty of the film is the way it plays with our perceptions. It’s easy to want to support Maryk as a man bucking up against the system, just as it’s easy to want to crucify Queeg as an ineffectual higher-up who deserves to be brought down a peg for his bullying ways. Indeed, the things we learn about Queeg are more than a little troubling. But Friedkin’s clever script makes us question everything, aided by an epilogue that delivers a shock to the system and recontextualizes the entire film.
Friedkin also has fun moving around the room, setting up reaction shots that say so much without a word — there’s a particularly great reaction shot from the late, great Lance Reddick, playing the head judge in the case. After a shocking revelation, Reddick’s character’s eyes widen and he looks completely stunned, as if he’s just been slapped. It’s a killer little moment in a film filled with killer little moments, and showcases how damn good Friedkin was at this sort of thing. By the time “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” comes to its somewhat startling conclusion, I was saddened by Friedkin’s passing all over again. What a loss. But at least he left us one final stunner.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10