12. Nikita Mikhailkov, director, co-writer and actor (the 2nd Juror). Based on the Reginald Rose’s teleplay “Twelve Angry Men.” With: Sergei Makovetsky (1st Juror), Sergie Garmash (3rd Juror), Valentin Gaft (4th), Alexei Petrenko (5th), Yuri Stoyanov (6th), Sergei Gazarov (7th), Mikhail Efremov (8th), Alexei Gorbunov (9th), Sergei Artsybashev (10th), Viktor Verzhbitsky (11th), Alexander Adabashyan (12th), Apti Magamayev (the accused boy)
The tale of how one calm, ethical juror sways eleven others to listen to reason while deciding a brutal murder case has become a classic courtroom drama. Originally written for the legendary television programme “Studio One” in 1954, Reginald Rose’s play was the basis for Sidney Lumet’s prize winning 1957 film, William Friedkin’s acclaimed 1997 TV remake, a 1986 Indian feature, and a 1964 London stage production before landing on Broadway in 2004. With juicy parts for actors willing to play bigots, bankers, sports fans, producers and humble immigrants, versions of 12 Angry Men have starred such notables as Henry Fonda, George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, E. G. Marshall, Tony Danza, Martin Balsam, Ossie Davis, Armin Meuller-Stahl, Edward Arnold, Franchot Tone, Edward James Olmos and Hume Cronyn.
Now Nikita Mikhailkov, the Academy Award wining director and star of Burnt by the Sun, a film about people threatened by Stalin’s merciless 1930s show trials, has adapted Reginald Rose’s work to reflect the modern realities of the Russian state. The resulting film is brilliantly acted, politically relevant and, unsurprisingly, somewhat overwrought. 12 is impressive enough to have been nominated for a foreign language Oscar and a Special Lion at the prestigious Venice Film Festival — and to have lost both times. It’s a flawed but fascinating film.
In Mikhailkov’s version, the young man on trial is Chechen, accused of murdering a Russian officer who adopted him after marrying his mother. The jurors attempting to decide the case are a mixed bag: a Jewish Holocaust survivor, a low-self-esteem TV producer, an amusing and talented musician, a former intelligence operative and, most significantly, a very opinionated — and often terrifying — racist taxi driver. Instead of a claustrophobic jury room, the twelve debate the boy’s fate in a run-down high school gymnasium, donated to the Russian legal authorities while a downtown Moscow courthouse is being renovated.
The widespread appeal of 12 Angry Men for North American and Western European audiences is that it represents the ills of society through its jurors while appealing to a higher sense of justice through the gradual victory of rationality over emotionalism. Mikhailkov attempts to do the same thing but he doesn’t appear to be totally swayed himself. Reflecting on the crazy anarchical spirit of Russia, the multi-talented actor, writer and director never truly embraces Rose’s message, that common sense can prevail over deep seated prejudice.
The finale of 12 is spectacularly dark and lawless. Unlike Rose, Mikhailkov doesn’t seem to believe in his country’s democratic claims. His film works far better when the jurors’ battles with each other lead to brilliant self-loathing soliloquies. But you don’t end up believing that justice will be done — unless violent methods back it up.
12 is smart and well acted. But Mikhailkov’s inherent emotionalism makes this Russian adaptation of Rose’s acclaimed play difficult to wholeheartedly embrace. Worth seeing? Yes. But will you be persuaded by the drama’s histrionics? Not really. No.