Thursday, April 9, 2009

The verdict is in: '12' is gripping

The idea of remaking Sidney Lumet's 1957 drama, "12 Angry Men," in a contemporary Russian setting seems a bit bizarre. Lumet's movie, which had its roots in the cauldron of live American television of the '50s, can be seen as a kind of triumph of liberal values. In Lumet's tightly wound story, an architect played by Henry Fonda -- an actor of unmitigated decency -- held his ground against 11 jurors who initially saw the case as open-and-shut.

As if to up the liberal ante, the defendant in Lumet's movie was a member of what critic Pauline Kael called "an unspecified minority." I don't mean to sound unappreciative or to denigrate Lumet's sturdy morality. I love "12 Angry Men,'' which remains a gripping little movie in which Lumet brilliantly solved the problem of working within the confines of a single room.

I suppose those who once presided over Soviet cinema would have dismissed "12 Angry Men" as a bourgeois fantasy in which an obviously educated man proved morally superior to some of the bigoted working-class stiffs on the jury.

The times, of course, have changed. Nikita Mikhalkov's post-Soviet "12" pays homage to Lumet's work -- albeit in its own, distinctly Russian way. Mikhalkov -- who won a best foreign film Oscar for 1994's "Burnt by the Sun" -- astutely avoids turning his movie into an act of stylistic or thematic mimicry.

Lumet raised the intensity level by refusing to "open up" his story. He didn't add scenes that were best left to the imagination. He used the claustrophobic qualities of a one-room setting to great advantage, concentrating on the character of the jurors and the high stakes of their deliberations. It should surprise no one that by the end, 12 Americans from different backgrounds overcame their idiosyncracies and did the right thing.

Mikhalkov keeps the frame of Lumet's story and even some of its plot points, but takes a radically different approach to the movie's style. Instead of emphasizing the suffocating nature of the setting, Mikhalkov contrives to place the jury in the large gymnasium of a Moscow school. The discipline imposed by four-wall confinement gives way to flashbacks, and Mikhalkov pounds home the drama with disorienting close-ups.

Thematically, Lumet emphasized the importance of courage and persistence. The justice system was sound, but men had to find the fiber to live up to its demands. Mikhalkov also applauds individual initiative, but he doesn't seem to believe that systems can accommodate truly just results. In an atmosphere of severe ethnic strife can decency prevail? How much responsibility are ordinary people willing to take in answering such a question?

Where Lumet's movie -- from a script by Reginald Rose -- didn't really define the defendant's ethnicity, Mikhalkov makes it central to the story. He focuses on a Chechen youth (Apti Magamaev) who has been accused of killing his Russian stepfather. The politics of prejudice -- Russian antipathy toward Chechens -- are augmented by the anti-Semitism of one of the jurors.

Because he has opened up the drama, Mikhalkov may have felt that he could enlarge it in other ways. Actors are given long character-revealing monologues, and, at times, pressurized drama boils over into melodramatic exclamation.

As was the case with Lumet's movie, we're introduced to characters who may be stand-ins for various components of Russian society: an indecisive TV producer, a Jewish man who parries the anti-Semitic thrusts of the most vitriolic juror, and a surgeon who eventually reveals something surprising about the range of his knowledge.

The role that Fonda played in the American version goes to Sergey Makovetsky; he's the juror who first raises the possibility that the Chechen youth may be innocent. Mikhalkov himself appears in the film, playing the character who provides a summation of the movie's themes. This coda feels a bit tacked-on, but it allows Mikhalkov to make the film his own and rounds out the expression of his ideas.

So, yes, "12" differs from its American predecessor, but in an odd way, it's entirely faithful to the spirit of 1950s American television which sometimes wore its conscience on its sleeve. "12" also tends toward obvious declamation, and it, too, leans toward revelatory moments that might as well have a great "ah ha!" scrawled across them.

Take these reservations as just that -- minor criticisms of a generally intriguing work that proves that a story can make the journey from Manhattan to Moscow and still hold us in its grip. To put it in the most reductive way possible: On a scale of one-to-ten, I'd put "12" at about a nine.

The movie opens Friday at the Mayan.

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