Picks and Pans Review: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Trial scenes are just about the toughest things to bring to TV because there is no action, no sex or violence, not even any pretty scenery—just raw, ungarnished writing, acting and directing. Some shows try to liven things up with gimmicks—odd camera angles, flashbacks and such—but the flaws in the drama always come through. That is why it is a brave undertaking to make a show that is nothing but a trial. And that is what makes The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial all the more wonderful—because the drama survives all the usual handicaps of trials and a few overdone moments in acting. Before Herman Wouk's novel The Caine Mutiny became an Oscar-nominated movie in 1954, it was this play, also written by Wouk and first produced in 1953. Unlike the movie, the play does not tell the story of the deranged Captain Queeg on the sea from beginning to end. Instead, it starts on land, where Lieutenant Maryk is on trial for mutiny after deposing Queeg during a typhoon. The writing remains impressive—a spectacular drama about a complex conflict of ethics and emotions, of power and corruption. The direction is remarkably underdone—especially considering that the director is Robert Altman, who has been trying to regain respectability after Popeye by making avant-garde TV shows like The Laundromat and The Dumbwaiter. Except for the irritating affectation of letting march music play over the dialogue, Altman serves the tale well by allowing the script to do the work for him. The cast tries, with mixed success, to do likewise. Brad Davis takes over the Queeg role Humphrey Bogart made famous, but he doesn't get to shine as Bogie did. For one thing, he overdoes a few scenes, playing them too much like an actor who has studied psychology and knows what a psychosis is. For another, Altman's direction takes the oomph out of Queeg's famous steel-balls scene to save that thunder for the end of the show. And for another, this isn't really Queeg's story. Nor is it Maryk's story, though Jeff Daniels does well here what he's done well in Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo: namely, act dumb. Nor is this the prosecutor's story, though Peter Gallagher does a fine job with that role. No, this show belongs to the defense attorney, Lieutenant Greenwald, who sees the right and wrong of all sides of this trial, who sees tragedy where it is not obvious, who keeps the story from taking the easy way out of its conflicts. The show especially belongs to Greenwald because of Eric (Drinking in America) Bogosian's performance. He steals the play not with showy acting but with wise restraint. He has the good sense to let Wouk's amazing drama shine through. So he is the best part of the week's best show.