12 (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

film_12_sm.jpgDespite the similarity of the basic plot, there’s a huge different in tone between 12 and Twelve Angry Men, and 12 comes out the winner in my book.





Twelve Angry Men is one of the solid gold classics of the American entertainment industry: It began as a Reginald Rose teleplay for the anthology series Studio One in 1954, was made into a well-regarded movie by Sidney Lumet, updated for television in 1997 by William Friedkin, and produced as a play on Broadway in 2004 (and in St. Louis in 2007). Now we have a Russian view of the same material, as it’s been remade by Nikita Mikhalkov as 12, Russia’s nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Mikhalkov keeps many of the plot points of the original while moving the story to contemporary Moscow and considerably expanding the portraits of the individual jurors as well as the accused murderer.

In case you’ve managed to miss all the previous incarnations of Twelve Angry Men, the plot concerns the trial of a young man of outsider heritage. In 12, he’s a Chechen accused of murdering his Russian stepfather. Almost all the action takes place in the jury deliberation room, as the 12 men strive to come to a unanimous verdict. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that originally all but one vote to convict, but over the course of the film that vote changes many times as the jurors argue over the evidence, their own preconceptions, and the general state of justice in the world. A major reason for the continued popularity of this story is the opportunity it provides for dramatic set-pieces by the actors, as each juror is a distinctive type with a relevant back story revealed over the course of the film.

Despite the similarity of the basic plot, there’s a huge different in tone between 12 and Lumet’s film, and 12 comes out the winner in my book. I know that many critics cite 12 Angry Men as one of their favorite movies, but to me it has always seemed intellectually pretentious and essentially dishonest melodrama, presenting a child’s concept of justice and a sitcom view of conflict. Of course we have our differences and difficulties, but nothing that can’t be solved within the running time of a feature film. And it’s an unearned paean to both the American justice system and to the common man (white men in particular), reinforcing the beliefs that our court system is really in the business of delivering justice and that the most ordinary and imperfect of people can solve complex problems if they are only willing to listen to their better selves.

12 presents a much more complex and realistic view of the world. The jurors are still imperfect human beings who reveal all sorts of prejudices over the course of their deliberations, but they also come to suspect that the entire trial may be a set-up, that key witnesses may be deliberately lying for venal reasons, and that the consequences of a not-guilty verdict may be worse for the defendant than if he were convicted and sent to prison. Nonetheless, they must make a decision and live with the real, rather than idealized, consequences of their choice. Fittingly, they deliberate in a decrepit school gym with asbestos-clad pipes and unreliable lighting, which at one point reduces them to sharing a single flashlight as the only source of illumination. It’s an apt metaphor for the decaying Russian state, and the personal stories the jurors tell each other during their deliberations reveal how little the black-and-white concept of justice — which is at the core of the American versions of this story — applies in their world.

None of the jurors have names, but each is clearly distinguished through appearance and attitude, and 12 remains a splendid actor’s showcase. Shot in sequence and featuring many long takes, it retains some of the feel of the television original despite the broadening of context through much more elaborate back stories for the jurors and repeated flashbacks to the accused murderer’s childhood in war-torn Chechnya. None of the actors are well known in the United States, but many have had distinguished careers in Europe, including Sergey Makovetsky, Sergei Gamash, Valentin Gaft, Alexey Petrenko and Mikhail Efremov; newcomer Apti Magamaev plays the Chechen. Although running 159 minutes, 12 seems much shorter as the rich story and outstanding technical package, including cinematography by Vladislav Opeliants, keeps your attention riveted to the screen. | Sarah Boslaugh

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