In '12,' angry men debate Russia's path
In "12," director Nikita Mikhalkov takes the old Hollywood classic "12 Angry Men" - a tense, minimalist warhorse about jury members hashing out a verdict - and repurposes it into a Slavic psychological epic. The new film's not only almost double the length of the original, it's four times as ambitious - a sprawling, surrealist, ultimately disturbing portrait of a society lurching uncertainly toward democracy. What's really on trial in this movie? Just the Russian soul.
The sturdy frame of Reginald Rose's original 1954 teleplay (adapted by Sidney Lumet for the movies three years later) still peeks through the new script's reupholstery. The prisoner is now a Chechen boy (Apti Magamaev), accused of stabbing his Russian Army-officer stepfather to death. Twelve jurors are dispatched to a high school gym to weigh his fate and 11 initially vote to send him to prison for life.
One of them isn't so sure, and on his mild-mannered obstinacy hangs the film. The dissenter (Sergey Makovetsky) is an engineer, an upper-class businessman who has spent time in the lower depths, and he sympathizes with the underdog. The others just want to get on with it, but the engineer shames them into considering the human life in their hands.
Once again, the loudest of the jurors is an unrepentant racist (Sergey Garmash), overflowing with bile toward both the accused and an elderly Jewish juror (Valentin Gaft). He's also able to cow the Harvard-educated reality-TV producer (Yuri Stoyanov) into changing his vote by playing on the man's weak-willed yuppie fears.
Various classes and ethnicities are represented: a surgeon from the Caucasus (Sergey Gazarov), a senile ex-Communist party hack (Alexey Petrenko), an actor (Mikhail Efremov), a laconic ex-mercenary (the director himself) - everyone's here but Vladimir Putin. Mikhail Gorbachev, or an actor playing him, does put in a cameo appearance during the film's bewildering opening sequence, though.
A 2008 foreign-language Oscar nominee, "12" has been directed in a style best described as High Ponderous, with symbolic touches like a piano in a cage and a sparrow that flits throughout the gym for much of the movie, pooping on jurors and seemingly uncertain whether to escape out the window and fly free. The film's a haul but it's imaginative and rarely dull, especially once you realize how far it has strayed in principle from its source.
The underlying question, it turns out, isn't whether the boy did it, but whether Russia is ready for the political and judicial ideals of the West. Somewhat startlingly (but not really), Mikhalkov answers that, no, sorry, it's not. All on their own, the sequestered jury members uncover evidence incriminating another suspect, and the movie then becomes a debate on how best to deal with the endemic corruption that seems part of the Russian national character.
Without giving too much away, the movie's solution is: more corruption. Targeted corruption; constructive corruption. "12" is a hard-liner's fantasy: After all the drama has crested and ebbed, the final scenes represent nothing less than a call for enlightened vigilante justice. That sound you hear is Reginald Rose spinning his casket into splinters.