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Now here's something you don't see every day -- a Russian film adaptation of a classic feel-good "liberal drama" from the Golden Age of Television, a movie as "American" as a movie can be. Nikita Mikhalkov's 1994 feature Burnt by the Sun won a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and this newer release was nominated in the same category. "12" is a reasonably faithful reworking of Reginald Rose's 1954 teleplay, which became the famous 1957 Sidney Lumet film 12 Angry Men starring Henry Fonda. Director Mikhalkov also plays a role in the new version, which transports the action from a jury room in Manhattan to one in Moscow. The Puerto Rican boy on trial becomes a Chechen youth (Apti Magamaev) considered a savage dog by many of the jurors.
The original story of a solitary juror slowly winning over a hostile jury in a murder case has long been a key model for liberal drama, for better or for worse. The Reginald Rose teleplay champions the glories of the American jury system and its admonition that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Rose's group of 'ordinary' jurors range from thoughtless guys angling for a quick verdict so they can attend a ball game, to a bitter bigot that clearly needs an enlightened civics lesson. Of course, the hero is Henry Fonda's noble minority voice for "not guilty". Channeling the calm, reasoning spirit of Abe Lincoln, Fonda slowly turns the jury toward their better angels. The irony of 12 Angry Men is that we hardly believe that every jury (or even one in 500) will be blessed with the saintly wisdom of a Henry Fonda type. Conservatives can also arch their eyebrows at the fact that Rose stacks the deck: the minority defendant is a true innocent at the mercy of blind justice: the juror pegged as a cruel bigot is a sick individual, not someone with a legitimate conviction.
"12" is a similarly liberal view of contemporary Russia. Rather than making a straight copy, Mikhalkov and his writers have filtered the original through the Russian experience. To Russians or Russian-Americans the twelve jurors and their backgrounds might seem a pack of clichés. To ordinary U.S. viewers who still think Muscovites stand in the snow to watch May Day parades, everything in "12" will seem fresh and interesting.
Due to ongoing construction, the jurors are assembled in the gymnasium of a junior high adjoining the courthouse. The script observes the fact that trials by jury are not an honored tradition, having been suppressed by the Bolsheviks. We're informed that actual trials in today's Russia are weighed heavily in favor of prosecutors and do not require a unanimous verdict. The jurors are either intrigued or bored by the process, which some of them see as an extension of the old hypocrisy. One juror must correct himself after referring to his associates as "comrades" rather than "gentlemen". An elderly juror wears several medals on his civilian coat, presumably from the Soviet era.Milena Botova / Sony Pictures Classics
The plot points of the case align with the American version, but "12" expands the drama in more than one direction. We see flashbacks to the defendant's childhood as a Chechen from the Caucasus, where he grew up around separatist partisans. After his parents were killed, he was adopted by a friend of the family who happened to be a Russian Army major. That's how our Chechen youth came to be in Moscow; the fact that he's charged with murdering his adoptive father makes him the target of severe anti- Chechen prejudice.
The all-male jury is a cross-section of modern Russia. They include a Jewish pensioner (Valentin Gaft), a rude cab driver (Sergey Garmash), a nervous TV tycoon (Yuri Stoyanov), a confused transportation worker (Alexey Petrenko), an engineer (Sergey Makovetsky), a surgeon (Sergey Gazarov), an actor (Mikhail Efremov), and a graveyard manager. Director Mikhalkov encourages the long deliberation to become something akin to a soulful encounter group. As the jurors argue, joke, and learn about each other, each tells a story or relates a relevant personal experience. As the movie is already quite theatrical in its approach (a single "set", enforced interactions, etc.) this might not seem such a good idea. But not only are the individual stories fascinating, the characters create an aggregate portrait of contemporary Russian values. These men grew up in the Cold War period but almost all were borne after WW2 and the Stalin era. It's a new society trying to get a grip on the same issues we have -- racial and ethnic divisions, inequities, confusion between old and new values.
The actors distinguish their characters by recreating the crime and through other stage business. The juror corresponding to the Henry Fonda character looks a little bit like a balding Kevin Kline. The surprises all come in character revelations that prove to the group that the Chechen defendant is not some alien savage. The surgeon comes from the Caucasus as well, and shares the boy's skill with a knife -- both for fighting and dancing (a great sequence). The engineer and the cemetery manager present stories that offer challenges to common ethics. For one the only salvation is to engage in "un-patriotic" business outside of Russia. The other describes a terrible scam operation that masks a program of genuine philanthropy. The twelve men learn to appreciate the value of mercy and understanding that the jury system supposedly offers.
"12" builds up sufficient good will that we don't mind the director's frequent use of symbolism. A shoddy heating duct in the gymnasium is direct evidence of bad civic planning in the old Soviet Union, and the new script throws in a lone bird that of course represents the defendant's hope for justice. Much better is the fact that "12" goes beyond the original by challenging the jurors to extend their personal responsibility after the trial, where it's really needed. When it comes down to putting their own futures on the line to do something for their fellow man, the jurors aren't so generous, not even the "Henry Fonda" character. Help finally comes from a highly conservative juror -- a telling reversal on the original teleplay's liberal bias. In some ways, "12" is an improvement on its model.
Sony Classics' DVD of "12" is a fine enhanced transfer of this widescreen import. One very solid recommendation for the film is that it holds us in rapt attention despite the fact that it's over 2.5 hours long. The only extra is an original trailer, in the midst of a number of promos and other trailers. "12" is highly recommended.
I'd be curious to know what Russians more acquainted with Moscow reality, legal or otherwise, think of Mikhalkov's movie -- do they consider it a timely moral lesson or optimistic pap? Many Americans who saw the original 12 Angry Men were doubtlessly inspired to take their jury duty more seriously, which surely puts both films in the plus column of civic responsibility.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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