For his final feature, William Friedkin, who died in August, has made a movie without a second of wasted time, down to his signature preference for an abrupt parting cut. The film, scripted by Friedkin himself, is the latest adaptation of a stage warhorse: Herman Wouk’s play “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” the author’s dramatization of the trial portion of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Caine Mutiny.” (The 1954 film version, featuring an unmatchable Humphrey Bogart as the unstable Lt. Cmdr. Queeg, used the whole book.)
While this “Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” is unlikely to be remembered with Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” or “Sorcerer,” it offers a bracing demonstration of the director’s sensibility and craft. Robert Altman’s 1988 TV version — also very good — presented a cacophony of overlapping lines, murky motivations and action staged in counterpoint to the dialogue. Friedkin’s is spare and no-nonsense, ratcheting up the tension through well-chosen angles, lacerating cuts and performances that make vivid impressions even when allotted scant screen time.
Jason Clarke, after embodying a prosecutorial role in “Oppenheimer,” now plays counsel for the defense as Lt. Barney Greenwald, a naval lawyer reluctantly representing the Caine’s executive officer, Lt. Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy), who stands accused of mutiny. Naval incentives give the benefit of the doubt to the ship’s captain, Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland, mannered in a way that might be attributed to Queeg’s airs), whom Greenwald must dismantle under the wary eye of the court’s president (a commanding Lance Reddick, who died in March and to whom the film is dedicated).
Friedkin has skillfully updated the material for 21st-century sensibilities — it’s no longer all men, for one thing — and context. Sept. 11, 2001, stands in for World War II in the closing toast, which is intended to insult one character and is credible here in a way that other renditions sometimes haven’t been. In Friedkin’s hands, the audience, too, is likely to feel doused in the face.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. Watch on Showtime platforms.