Twelve Angry Russians and an Unsung Swedish Heroine: A remake of Sidney Lumet’s Oscar Nominee Takes Certain Liberties, but Reveals Other Truths About Russia.

sarris12 movie 2 Twelve Angry Russians and an Unsung Swedish Heroine: A remake of Sidney Lumet’s Oscar Nominee Takes Certain Liberties, but Reveals Other Truths About Russia.12
Running time 159 minutes
Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov
Written by Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Moiseyenko, Alexander Novototsky
Starring Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergei Makovetsky, Valentin Gaft

Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12, from a screenplay (in Russian and Chechen, with English subtitles) by Mr. Mikhalkov, Alexander Novototsky and Vladimir Moiseyenko, turns out to be an updated, restructured and relocated remake of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Mr. Lumet’s film was from a screenplay by Reginald Rose, who adapted his 1954 television play, which Mr. Lumet also directed for the small screen. It has been remade by William Friedkin for Showtime in 1997, and as a stage production on Broadway in 2004. In any event, as Valentin Gaft, a member of the Russian cast of 12, remarks: “There are not so many parallels with the Lumet picture.”

True enough, though both films end with a not-guilty verdict for a defendant who at the outset was on the verge of a murder conviction by 11 of the 12 jurors. The Lumet film finishes its jury deliberations in 96 minutes, whereas the Russian remake slowly unwinds in 159 minutes, more than an hour longer than the original. Part of the extra length can be attributed to the long history in Russian life and literature of Russians telling their life stories to perfect strangers with the slightest encouragement to do so.

A great deal of time is devoted also to political criticism, which is almost totally absent in the Lumet version. Still, both films spotlight juries that are studies in contrast by class, profession, social outlook, extent of education and degree of identification with the defendant.

Of course, I am infinitely more familiar with the actors in the Lumet film than I am with the actors in Mr. Mikhalkov’s, including the director himself, in the crucial role of the jury foreman, played in the Lumet film by Martin Balsam. And so, I will henceforth identify the various characters as much by their American actors as by their Russian counterparts. Not that there is always an exact match in the two films. Henry Fonda, for example, is much more dominant as the initially lone holdout among the jurors than his replica in the Russian film, Sergei Makovetsky, as an engineer, and, for a time, the lone dissenter in the group.

After all, the Hollywood star system is much more rigorously an absolute monarchy than is its equivalent in the Russian film industry. Hence, whereas the Fonda character is the most articulate member of the jury, and immediately explains his detailed doubts about the “evidence” in the trial, his Russian counterpart expresses only a vague desire to prolong the proceedings before sending a Chechen youth off to a likely life sentence.

As it happens, Mr. Mikhalkov and his co-writers have taken considerable liberties with the actual Russian judicial system. Frankly, I didn’t have any idea about how Russian courts worked until I read the film’s production notes. It seems that jury trials were made law in Russia for the first time in 1864 by Czar Alexander II, and were suspended in 1922 when the Bolsheviks seized power.

When the Russian Federation formulated a new judicial code in 1993, the jury system was restored as an option in criminal cases, along with trial by a sitting judge and two lay assessors available to criminals. Moreover, in the last five years, up to half of the not-guilty verdicts arrived at by jury trials were overturned by higher-court judges.

So, 12 represents a bit of a stretch in contemporary Russian jurisprudence in having a Chechen defendant walk out the prison door to freedom after the rest of the jurors finally capitulate to the lone dissenter. Furthermore, the jury’s deliberations are performed in a shabby school gym next to the courthouse, and a large part of the running time is spent on flashbacks of the defendant growing up in the maelstrom of the Chechen war, Russia’s Vietnam; Mr. Mikhalkov has taken a courageous stand against it. The film also takes a stand against various current bigotries, including anti-Semitism, which involves the one Jewish juror, played by the aforementioned Valentin Gaft. All in all, 12 is more a visual spectacle than the chamber drama of the Lumet original, but confined as it was, the Lumet film built up more dramatic tension than there is in this remake. Still, the sense of social corrosion is much stronger in Mr. Mikhalkov’s film than in Mr. Lumet’s. It is well worth seeing if only for the insights into contemporary Russian society. The acting of all 12 jurors is exemplary, in both versions.

asarris@observer.com