12: Mikhalkov’s Russian Version of Lumet’s 1957 Classic

Sony Classics Release

A loose remake of “12 Angry Men,” Sidney Lumet’s great courtroom drama (his first, Oscar-nominated feature), Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12” updates the action and makes the tale entirely Russian in text, context, and characters.

Mikhalkov, the gifted Russian director, who won the 1994 Foreign Picture Oscar, for “Burnt by Sun,” has not made a movie in a decade, since “The Barber of Siberia,” the embarrassing picture that opened the 1998 Cannes Film Fest, so it’s a pleasure to report that “12” represent a return to form.  It’s also amazing to observe that Reginald Rose’s play of half a century ago is still powerful and relevant today. Surprisingly, “12 Angry Men” lends itself easily to cross-cultural interpretations, in this case a uniquely Russian milieu.

In this version, twelve jurors of different ages, ethnicities, and social positions discuss the case of an 18-year-old Chechen youth (Apti Magamayev), who’s accused of the first-degree murder of his stepfather, a respected Russian Army officer.  As they debate the complex details, each divulges a different history of anxiety and resentment and other issues that have preoccupied their minds and souls.

At first, it appears to be a simple, clear-cut case.  After all, the Georgian teen is poor, uneducated, and speaks “bad Russian,” as some biased jurors point out.  But at the deliberations goes on at a converted school gym, it increasingly becomes clear that the case might be more complex and multi-nuanced than it appears to be. In the process–and it’s a long one (the film’s running time is 153 minutes), they talk about the politics of their country, which is going through the turmoil of a transitional phase in both social and economic issues. They wonder who is to blame for all the things that went wrong in contemporary Russian society.

You may recall that in the American movie, Henry Fonda played a crucial role, the one juror who raises doubt and ultimately changes climate of opinion by encouraging his colleagues to look at the case from different possible perspectives, and not to place it in a sealed box, just because the defendant is a minority member.  In Mikhalkov’s version, he is a modest inventor, whose democratic view and open-mind come in direct opposition to the most biased juror, among them a racist taxi driver (Sergey Garmash), who uses patriotism as an ideological-judicial tool, while also not neglecting to mention the terrible shape in which his favorite Moscow is.

While doing it, each member of the all-male jury becomes the audience, critic, and co-star of the others’ stories. Eventually, they all play to one silent jury foreman (played by director Mikhalkov himself), who saves a crucial revelation for the grand finale.

Russia’s nominee for the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Mikhalkov’s “12” received strong support at the Golden Eagle awards in Moscow, where it picked up five prizes, including film and director. The movie “12” was also the deserved winner of the editing and music awards. The Russian Academy of Film and Television Arts decision to award the best actor prize to the film’s 12-strong ensemble members proved more controversial, as many felt that Makovetsky gave a standout performance.

The film’s ensemble, which won a special award at last year’s Venice Film Fest, is outstanding, though many observers at the Eagle awards pointed out that academy members also hadn’t nominated Konstantin Lavronenko for his lead performance in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Banishment.” Zvyagintsev’s performance received the actor prize at the 2006 Cannes Fest, where “Banishment” had received its world premiere.