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TV Review : ‘Caine Mutiny’ Courts Hazards

Times Television Critic

The new captain smiled slightly and said, “My name is Queeg.” --"The Caine Mutiny”

CBS almost does what a fearsome typhoon couldn’t do: sink the mine sweeper Caine. Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” arrives Sunday at 9 p.m. (Channels 2 and 8), misdirected and Queeged out, but still well worth your time.

This TV account is adapted from Wouk’s play--essentially the trial portion of his masterful 1951 novel “The Caine Mutiny,” which became a movie featuring Humphrey Bogart’s memorable performance as the mentally ill and war-fatigued skipper of a creaky minesweeper in World War II.

Unlike the play, the book and movie also set out in intriguing, extended detail the bizarre events before the fictional Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg was relieved of command by Lt. Steve Maryk while panicking on the bridge during a terrifying storm that endangered the Caine.

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But it’s Maryk’s court-martial that is especially captivating, with the despotic Queeg revealing his true pathetic self by falling apart on the stand, as he had during the typhoon.

The tones of Wouk’s characters--the earnestness of Maryk and the young Ensign Keith, the back-stabbing of Lt. Keefer, the tactical pragmatism of the prosecutor, Challee, and the idealism of Maryk’s methodical defender, Lt. Greenwald--clash electrifyingly in this austere, quasi-courtroom setting.

Jeff Daniels as Maryk, Daniel Jenkins as Keith, Kevin J. O’Connor as Keefer, Peter Gallagher as Challee and Michael Murphy as the head of the court-martial all do solid work. Ken Michaels shines briefly as Bird, the smug Navy psychiatrist.

More critically, Eric Bogosian is outstanding as the reluctant defense counsel, Greenwald, who shrewdly parcels out the rope for Queeg’s self-destruction and later verbally executes Keefer.

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And even with Brad Davis mostly botching the role of the creepy Queeg, you still watch in almost embarrassed horror as the Caine’s embattled captain--while intermittently rolling two large black marbles in his right hand to conceal his trembling--cracks up under pressure. No wonder he is one of American fiction’s enduring characters.

Sneering, snarling and almost spitting his words, however, Davis is too mannered and exaggerated, delivering a hot, overbaked stage performance for a cool, intimate medium. Always, you are aware of him acting in this crucial role.

Director Robert Altman deftly contrasts the irrationality of Queeg with the stiff correctness of the Navy board of investigation. From the initially smoky gymnasium where the court-martial is held to the golden haze of the Caine victory party, moreover, Altman’s staging oozes appealing texture and atmosphere.

But his direction is also pretentious and distracting, portraying a stationary event with a fidgety camera. Altman tends to merge foregrounds and backgrounds, an effective tactic in centerless, stream-of-consciousness stories such as his “Tanner” presidential campaign satires on HBO. But here, his overlapping and conflicting attention points merely blur and diffuse.

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We hear Maryk grilled by Challee, for example, but see Greenwald, squirming. As Maryk is describing Queeg’s bizarre behavior, a pacing Queeg is visible in the far background through a screen, awaiting his turn on the stand. Interesting . . . but also intrusive. So are the continual exterior sounds--such as a parading Navy band somewhere outside the gymnasium--that Altman attaches for effect.

Meanwhile, most of Greenwald’s guilt-driven rebuke of the self-serving hypocrite Keefer--a wonderful drunken speech that defines the story’s moral core--is suffocated by nervous mood and production.

As is much of TV’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” a paradoxical exercise in fascinating, absorbing incoherence.


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