Monday, March 02, 2009

12 (Angry Russian Men)

In 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in her apartment building in what was widely considered retribution for her investigative reporting on the human rights abuses committed by the Russian military and the Putin-backed authorities in Chechnya. Her killers have yet to be brought to justice. Such background is helpful to fully appreciate Nikita Mikhalkov’s Russian adaptation of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, in which a Chechen teenager is on trial for the murder of his step-father, a Russian military officer. One of last year’s Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, Mikhalkov’s 12 (trailer here), opens Wednesday in New York.

The trial has gone poorly for the accused Chechen and his fate now rests in the hands of twelve men, eleven of whom are anxious to simply be done with the matter. There is of course one holdout. The lone dissenting juror—the Henry Fonda character in Sidney Lumet’s classic 1957 film—is now a wealthy Russian engineer who initially claims to just be troubled by his fellow jurors’ undue haste to convict. However, as he begins sway fellow jurors, it becomes clear he harbors very specific doubts regarding the prosecution’s supposedly open-and-shut case.

The engineer’s main nemesis is a xenophobic and anti-Semitic cab driver who responds to the engineer’s reasonable objections with bullying tactics. This works with weaker jurors, but not with a Caucasusian surgeon, who schools the cabbie in the art of knife-wielding during a particularly riveting scene. Most jurors duly take the spotlight in turn for their moment of dramatic revelation. Some offer non-sequiturs that seem to only have meaning for their characters, while others are dramatically on-point, yet with considerable economy, Mikhalkov and his fellow screen-writers Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov and Vladimir Moisseenko fully flesh out at least ten of the twelve angry Russian men.

In addition to vaguely resembling Fonda, Sergey Makovetsky brings credible nuance to the role of the initial holdout juror. Sergei Garmash nicely captures both the rage and humanity of the antagonistic cabbie, while Sergei Gazarov delivers the film a jolt of energy as the surgeon. However, the real standout on the jury is Mikhalkov himself as the surprisingly shrewd foreman and the audience’s guide through the Russian legal system (which in reality is much worse for the accused than depicted in 12).

Though the audience probably has a general idea where the verdict is headed, Mikhalkov cannily maintains the tension through the nearly gothic environment of the decrepit school gymnasium the jury is forced to deliberate in and frequent straw votes to measure the shifts within their ranks. It is also clear that their verdict, whatever it might be, will have serious implications in the frankly sinister real world of Putin’s Russia. In fact, Mikhalkov, in truly Russian fashion, tosses the audience a third act curve-ball, which complicates their previous moral assumptions about the characters and the case. As a result, Mikhalkov makes it impossible to classify 12 with comforting terms like a “plea for tolerance” or a “paean to civic duty.” Contemporary Russia is simply too messy for such easy labels.

While Mikhalkov occasionally overdoes the symbolic flourishes, there is a gritty core to 12 that is very compelling. Well acted and briskly paced, it seems far shorter than its 159 minutes. A smart film that asks whether justice can be found in an unjust system, 12 opens Wednesday in New York at the Film Forum.