Review of '12,' a Russian Version of '12 Angry Men'

Nikita Mikhalkov, center, directs and acts in "12," in which jurors debate the fate of a Chechen man.
Nikita Mikhalkov, center, directs and acts in "12," in which jurors debate the fate of a Chechen man. (By Milena Botova -- Sony Pictures Classics)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

Unlike Sidney Lumet's 1957 movie adaptation of "12 Angry Men," which is shot in tense close-ups in a cramped room, Nikita Mikhalkov's "12" breathes and floats. It allows itself ample space (both physically and textually) to reimagine Reginald Rose's original stage play about a jury that deadlocks over a murder case. Whereas Lumet squeezed his actors into a tiny conference room clogged with cigarette smoke and humming with fans, Milhakov puts his men in a cavernous gymnasium.

A young Chechen man is accused of killing his adoptive father, a Russian military officer. A Moscow courthouse is being renovated, so jurors 1 through 12 set up camp on a neighboring basketball floor, debating both at a portable table and from the far corners of the gym. Freed from restrictive stage direction, they pace and perform and wander in and out of the shot. Because of this, the film seems at once both organic and artful.

Lumet's version, and many stage productions over the past 50 years, retain a certain white-collar starchiness, a familiar geometry of rolled sleeves hovering around a rectangular table. In "12," characters advance and recede from the center. They engage one another at different times, passing the focus as the debate choreography evolves from buttoned-up certainty to freewheeling discussion to moral morass. There is a pacing and rhythm at work here that goes beyond syncopated dialogue and pregnant pauses. There is constant activity in Mikhalkov's gym, and he captures it in long, circling takes, occasionally from far away. "12" transforms Rose's play into a ballet of sorts. The story, as Mikhalkov tells it, is as much about movement as it is about words.

And it's not only about movement in the physical sense -- the jurors reenacting the crime in question using wrestling mats and soccer nets and medicine balls -- but also in the emotional sense. A man can move between doubt and certainty, from prejudice to empathy. Rose's story works regardless of the ethnicity of the accused murderer (Hispanic in earlier versions and Chechen here). It endures because it's eternally fascinating to watch people confront themselves by confronting others. Throwing a dozen men armed with disparate life experiences into a room, and requiring them to collaborate and pass judgment on a stranger, is a recipe for humble pie.

If "12" is guilty of anything, it's of running long. Stretching indulgently for 2 1/2 hours, the movie is perhaps too accommodating of its wonderful, lively actors, whose every monologue and reaction certainly deserve to be spared from the cutting room floor. But Mikhalkov adds an element previously unseen in any iteration of Rose's story: He shows the accused murderer concurrently, passing the time in his cell, and in the past, as a boy surviving a cruel military assault by the Russians and being rescued and adopted by a military officer.

Is this necessary? Only for making a statement about the cruelty of war -- which may be one statement too many in an already issue-crowded field. But it further pulls the story out of familiar territory, heightening the drama and thickening the emotion. If Mikhalkov really wanted to reimagine the story, though, he might've thrown some women into the mix.

12 (153 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for violence and brief sexual and drug references.

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