12 (2009) Review

People who recall recent entertainment history will recognize 12 from the 80th Academy Awards in 2008. 12 was nominated for Best Foreign Film, which was ultimately won by The Counterfeiters. People who recall entertainment history in general will recognize Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men from 1957 in this modern Russian adaptation. Writer/director Nikita Mikhalkov makes a worthy effort to go beyond simply “remaking” and instead reaches for the lofty heights of “reimagining” the source material. While a few aspects are contrived, overall 12 succeeds in emerging as a mostly original work.

The plot revolves around 12 male jurors who have just finished hearing the last day of a murder trial. The accused is a teenage boy from war torn Chechnya and charged with murdering his army-officer stepfather, the penalty for which is life imprisonment. The jurors are isolated in a school gym next to the courthouse to deliberate the seemingly open-and-shut case and agree on a unanimous decision. After the first vote, only one juror (Sergey Makovetsky) dissents and votes “not guilty,” worried that a unanimous decision would be made too quickly. As discussion proceeds, jurors’ stances shift back and forth as closer examinations of the facts are performed and new arguments raised. Along the way to unanimity, each man bares a little of his own soul, confronting personal doubts, demons and prejudices.

12 separates itself from the original in many ways. First, it’s been beefed up to actually feel like a feature film, unlike the anemic source material that smacked of a televised play. Here, the point of view steps out of the makeshift jury room to flesh out the life of the accused with short flashbacks of him as a child, surviving through the violence of an ever-present war. It’s during these scenes that the production value of the film shines. For a script that really doesn’t require anything more than a room and 12 actors, 12 goes out of its way to present a very real world full of scrappy soldiers, muzzle flash, derelict tanks, incessant rain and indomitable spirit. Fortunately, these scenes are mostly handled with aplomb, with only a handful of them feeling indulgent, like the dog carrying something shiny in its mouth that doesn’t come into focus until the end.

Furthermore, the characters are less archetypal in 12. When the single dissenter casts his not guilty vote for the first time, he appears less motivated by some crusade to try the case over amongst themselves and more inspired by common decency. Later, of course, we find out he really does just want to settle his suspicions, but the beginning timidity is refreshing, realistic and handled well by Makovetsky. Interestingly, he isn’t necessarily the protagonist. He’s merely the catalyst that gets the men talking. Instead, almost every actor becomes the star of the film as each man becomes the focus of discussion when they deliver personal monologues about corruption, hope and redemption. While not every speech is memorable or poignant, each actor truly commands the screen during their respective moments.

The direction is also first-rate in that it manages to keep the idea of 12 men in a room from getting stale. All the while, unflinching long takes also make the viewer actually feel like a 13th juror. This is a tremendous accomplishment, considering the two and half-hour length of the film. This aspect only helps to immerse the audience even further as viewers will no doubt share the jurors’ frustration when a unanimous decision still hasn’t been reached after two hours.

One small criticism would be regarding the subtitles. The entire film is spoken in Russian and the white subtitles are sometimes displayed over light backgrounds, making them hard to read, but these moments are few and far between. They certainly won’t mitigate the enjoyment to be had by much. For fans of well written dialog, natural acting, thoughtful direction and a premise that’s as powerful today as it was 50 years ago, 12 shouldn’t be missed.