Nikita Mikhalkov’s first directing gig since 1998’s The Barber of Siberia is a riveting Russian re-do of the Reginald Rose teleplay 12 Angry Men, which was first brought to theaters in 1957 as the big screen helming debut of Sidney Lumet. The Lumet version was a claustrophobic study in human nature, but Mikhalkov’s take, which was nominated for the 2007 Foreign Language Oscar, is supremely Russian, as the dozen disparate jurors bring their own regional and political baggage to the deliberating table. Mikhalkov (1994 Oscar winner Burnt by the Sun ) combines sweaty drama with odd bits of theatricality in telling the story of a Chechen teenager who is obviously guilty of murdering his adoptive Russian stepfather. The prodigious running time flies by, although it will eat into the number of per-day showings of a film with limited financial potential already. Hopefully, discerning audiences and film buffs will seek out a classic American tale given mesmerizing Slavic treatment by Russia’s most internationally famous director (an admittedly slim list).
Although chunks of the film will look familiar to fans of 12 Angry Men (it’s odd watching these powerful Russian actors interpret Rose’s half-century old work), Mikhalkov opens up the original teleplay physically and thematically. Here, in what may be a subtle callback to the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the all-male jury retires to a converted school gymnasium to decide the boy’s fate. The items in the gym, ranging from gym mats, to orange cones, to a leaky pipe representing a Russia in disrepair, will all be employed as each man approaches the case from his own socio-political angle. Initially, the group believes deliberations will take around twenty minutes. And why not? The defendant (Apti Magamayev) is Chechen. His dead stepfather is a Russian army officer. What’s to deliberate? But one juror, a meekly insistent inventor (Sergey Makovetsky, in the Henry Fonda role) holds out, not because the boy might be innocent, but because the other members refuse to even discuss the possibility. The most intractable guilty vote comes from a racist and anti-Semitic taxi driver (Sergey Garmash, in the Ed Begley part) fiercely clinging to his sense of nationalism and hateful of what his Moscow has become. His bile spews towards the Georgian who speaks poor Russian and for the juror who employs a “typical Jewish move” by noting how the boy’s attorney mounted a lazy defense because the Chechen teen has no money. But with one eyebrow now raised as to the boy’s possible innocence, deliberations begin in earnest.
In a style that’s theatrical but rarely plays to the back row, each actor gets his own soliloquy, a personal revelation and slice of Russia’s fractured psyche that carries either overt or subtle connections to the case. The Jewish intellectual spins a Holocaust tale to prove that “anything can happen,” and the inventor recounts how his own redemption from drunken destitution makes him want to redeem the Chechen boy. Mikhalkov, known to carry pro-Putin sympathies, plays the jury foreman. But Mikhalkov, whose older brother is director Andrei Konchalovsky ( Runaway Train ), surprises here by making his character a Russian secret service agent who offers to help the Chechen defendant in a way that would probably not please the Russian prime minister. But, by most accounts, Mikhalkov is more nationalist than communist and if Russia is going to put itself back together, there’s hardly a more dramatically workable symbol then a dozen men representing different political bents coming to the same, morally and legally correct conclusion about a supposed enemy. The jury foreman’s actions also acknowledge that the Russian people have always had a strained (if not estranged) relationship with the concept of law and order. The Russian people take a perverse pride in their corruption, embodied by the cemetery director and his tale of clever deceit. Justice itself is presented as timid and tentative and used to being cowered into irrelevancy. But not this time because in the end Mikhalkov insures the right decision is made. “Everything here is very Russian somehow,” says the racist taxi driver. In the respect of the characters’ worst behavior, the film certainly is Russian. Someday, maybe the characters’ best behavior will also be seen as equally Russian.
Sony Pictures Classics
Cast : Sergei Makovetsky, Sergey Garmash, Aleksei Petrenko, Yuri Stoyanov and Nikita Mikhalkov
Screenplay: Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky
Director : Nikita Mikhalkov
Producers: Nikita Mikhalkov and Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov
Genre: Drama, Russian-language; subtitled
Rating: PG-13 for violent images, disturbing content, thematic material, brief sexual and drug references, and smoking
Running time: 153 mins
Release Date: March 6 NY/LA