12 *** ½
Directed By: Nikita Mikhalkov.
Written By: Nikita Mikhalkov & Aleksandr Novototsky & Vladimir Moiseyenko based on the 1957 movie.
Starring: Sergei Makovetsky (Juror #1), Nikita Mikhalkov (Juror #2), Sergey Garmash (Juror #3), Valentin Gaft (Juror #4), Aleksei Petrenko (Juror #5), Yuriy Stoyanov (Juror #6), Sergei Gazarov (Juror #7), Mikhail Efremov (Juror #8), Aleksey Gorbunov (Juror #9), Sergei Artsybashev (Juror #10), Viktor Verzhbitskiy (Juror #11), Roman Madyanov (Juror #12).
Some stories never seem to grow old. Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) is one of the best legal thrillers ever made. It is about 12 men on a jury for a trial that we never see trying to sort out the details of the crime while coming up with their verdict. 11 men think the kid is guilty of murdering his father. One man, played by Henry Fonda, is not so sure. Over the course of the movie, he argue his case and slowly, jurors start changing their mind. Made during the McCarthy era, the movie was seen as an indictment of judging people based on preconceived notions. Whether or not the kid is actually guilty is never really solved adequately, but then it doesn’t need to be. The movie is about how the legal system requires that the prosecution needs to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt. It is that reasonable doubt that is the key to the movie.
There have been more than a few versions in the 50 years since Lumet’s original, but none of them have even approached the original until Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2007, but is just now coming out for people in North America to see. It is one of Mikhalkov’s best films of his long, illustrious career. That is because while he stays true to the original film, he is not beholden to it. He expands the original story, and adds nearly an hour’s running time to the film. All the main hallmarks of the original film are still there - the lone juror who thinks there is reasonable doubt, questions about the knife and just how unique it is, whether the old man witness could have actually seen what he says he saw, and whether the old lady across the way had her glasses on or not. The characters are similar in broad strokes - from the angry man who views the youngster as a “dog”, to the goofy guy with the hat who just wants to get out of there, and the old man who seems at some points to the lone voice of reason.
But what makes 12 a wonderful film in its own right, and not just another remake, is because Mikhalkov has taken this old story for 1950s America and made it relevant to current day Russia. Instead of an inner city youth on trial, it is a Chechen refugee who is charged with the murder of his adoptive father, a former Russian military officier. Much of the additional running time is devoted to flashbacks to scenes from the kid’s hellish life before he was put on trial for his. Telling, the murder once again is never shown, so we never do really find out if the kid is guilty or not, although they certainly do put forward a more convincing case than they did in the original film. They add an additional twist at the end of the film, that I thought was pretty amazing, which I will not reveal here.
What I loved about the film is how it does not really try and hide some of the more theatrical, or even dated, elements of the film. There would never be a jury made up of 12 men anymore, something the film addresses by showing that the judge at the trial as a woman. It locks the jury in a school gymnasium, and doesn’t let them out for two hours and forty minutes. Each of the actors get a monologue however, where they both reveal secrets about themselves, and illuminate the trial. Instead of grinding the movie to a half, like many monologues do, but rather this is where the movie really soars. While all the versions of the story have been ensemble pieces, this film does the best job of completing integrating the cast. Perhaps that’s because while the actor with the Henry Fonda role still stands up to the rest of the jurors, after that, he becomes just another jury member. None of the actors are more important than the others.
What I found fascinating is the makeup of the jury. All of the men on the jury are of a generation that has lived much of their lives under communism, with secret trials and a justice system that was anything but transparent, and even though the Iron Curtain fell 2 decades ago, some still have the old attitudes (one keeps calling the others “comrades” before he corrects himself). The paranoia of the old days seeps into their discussion as it goes on. This is not just an American story that has been transplanted to Russian, but one that has been turned Russian to its core.
12 is a fascinating movie not because the result of the trial is surprising. Even if you have never seen any of the other versions of the story, you can probably figure out where the movie is going to end up fairly early. But 12 is a movie that doesn’t really depend on the suspense of the situation to generate interest in the film. It is a closely observed character study - not just of the 12 jurors and the kid on trial - but on Russian itself.