Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men was less a celebration of the democratic legal system than the transformative power of communication that theoretically empowers it. The film, as well as the Reginald Rose play on which it is based, was strangely satisfying from basic ethical and narrative viewpoints - to see one juror, equally enlivened by reason and compassion, convert a hostile and prejudiced jury to his cause of reasonable doubt made for rich entertainment. Raging performances perfectly suited to the economical, dialogue-driven story would rightfully place the film in high esteem.
12, Nikita Mikhalkov’s reimagining, seeks relevance in Lumet’s film, and perhaps tacitly in all of the Past, for contemporary Russian society. Mikhalkov transplants the story of a Chechen youth (Apti Magamayev) accused of murdering his Russian stepfather in present-day Moscow. Twelve jurors must wrestle with their knee-jerk impulse to condemn him to a life in prison; an impulse propelled variously by ethnic prejudice or facile reasoning. Of course, after the plea of one thoughtful juror (Sergei Makovetsky), the dominoes begin to fall the other way.
Narratively, this is as pleasant and engaging as 12 Angry Men, but what really enlivens Mikhalkov’s film is this new setting. The premise of Lumet’s film allowed both audience and characters to take the democratic process itself somewhat for granted. In Russia, democracy and capitalism are not so sacrosanct; the twelve jurors Mikhalkov gives as representatives of various strata of Russian society are middle-aged or elderly men (strangely, despite the film’s less descriptive title, no women are offered these roles) who have weathered the fall of communism, and are prepared to do so for their new and fledgling democracy. The ultimate defense and acquittal of the accused boy, this besieged minority, must come from something deeper than a love for democracy.
Mikhalkov gives 12 a brisk pace, allowing what is basically 160-minutes of dialogue in one room to propel itself on the strength of the writing, only breaking ranks to give intercalary flashbacks of the young Chechen’s past. Where the director strays from the original story to give life to each one of the jurors and include a topical critique of the Russian mob, the film’s unapologetic theatricality becomes less credible. Still, it becomes clear that Mikhalkov’s purpose here, at least with regard to the former, was to reveal a secret within each juror that is used as a key to compassion; this isn’t a one-man show with Henry Fonda crusading for justice. This justice is collaborative, the result of slow and revealing deliberation.
I enjoy that Mikhalkov has co-opted an old cinematic text in all the right ways - to make it his own in an aesthetic sense is one thing, but to use it to enhance modern crises specific to his society reflects a greater degree of critical skill. Cultural narratives needn’t always be reproduced as a means to an end; it’s crucial that an artist infuse his or herself into the retelling to remind us why exactly we need stories in the first place.
Phillip Stephens is the book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).