Though I admit it’s not a film I’ve revisited often, Sidney Lumet‘s 1957 masterpiece 12 Angry Men has had a significant impact on my world-view. I first saw it at the tender age of 14 or so when my 9th Grade Civics teacher, Mr. Pomranka, showed it to us in class. Something of a Ben Franklin lookalike, Mr. Pomranka made it his business to teach his students plain reason and critical thinking, and how to distinguish fact from opinion. A fact, he said, could be false, but that doesn’t make it an opinion. For example, a man who says that the Holocaust was a hoax is not speaking his own opinion, but rather stating a fact that is simply untrue. To say that holocaust deniers are bigoted morons–that’s an opinion. He made heavy use of our curricular textbook, but he never asked us to answer the review questions at the end of every chapter. Rather, he had us write out the statements contained within the questions. I remember fondly the debate he and I had about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a tragedy that Bush‘s “No Child Left Behind” educational reforms leave little room for a teacher like Mr. Pomranka in our public schools.
It’s no wonder he showed us 12 Angry Men. It is a marvelous, obliquely patriotic study of social dynamics and the courage it takes to insist on reason when no one else seems to care. Virtually the entire film takes place in a single, hot room where twelve cranky and impatient jurors decide the fate of a young man charged with murder. Henry Fonda, the star of the show, is the first to argue for the boy’s innocence, and he forces his fellow citizens to carefully re-examine every aspect of the case, often much more critically and thoroughly than the public defender did during the trial. It is an ode to reasoned argument and a passionate argument for dispassion.
It’s unusual these days for an American film to be remade and re-interpreted overseas. For years we’ve been accustomed to the opposite, often with lackluster results from Hollywood. But here we get Nikita Mikhalkov‘s 12, a revealing anomaly and an interesting study in cultural contrast. The set-up is more or less the same. A Chechen boy is accused of murdering his step-father, and twelve reluctant Russian men are assembled–this time in a school gymnasium–to consider his fate. The details of the case are in many places identical to the Lumet version–a distinctive knife figures prominently as does the technique of its application, and the jurors reenact the mechanics of a witness’ testimony to see if it’s plausible. Where it differs is in its more emotion-driven arguments. While the aforementioned logical deductions are present, they’re given less weight than the mostly irrelevant, improbable and quintessentially Russian soliloquies that each jury member relates in turn. For instance, the Jewish man tells the story of his unattractive father who lived in a WWII ghetto and fell in love with the beautiful wife of an SS officer, who eventually married him and bore 11 of his children. How does this story relate to the case? Well, naturally if a such a miracle could occur, couldn’t the boy be innocent after all? Thus he changes his vote to “not guilty.” We hear eleven similar stories, few of which have any factual bearing on the case. Immediately after most of these anecdotes, we are treated to disjointed scenes from the boy’s life in Chechnya, featuring his gentle shepherd father and a swarthy, sneering rebel leader. Mikhalkov is clearly trying to be progressive, but all the Chechen characters are painted as patronizing stereotypes. Repeated every time is the image of a dog running through pouring rain holding something in its mouth that glints.
The movie does introduce classic American legal phrases like “beyond a reasonable doubt” but these are offered more as suggestions than mandates. The bailiff tells the men “the verdict should be unanimous.” He never says it must be, but he has to say that, otherwise the movie loses its premise. Jury trials might still be a little unfamiliar to average Russians–I learn that they were abolished altogether during the Soviet period. I don’t really know what Russian law actually requires from its juries, but it doesn’t look like much. The only character in the picture with any real knowledge of American jury trials is a Harvard-educated businessman who is portrayed as jittery, effeminate and impressionable. The film’s conclusion does offer a genuine twist from the American version, but while the ideas raised near the end (by Mikhalkov himself as the jury foreman) are intriguing, they are never developed properly and they come off as preachy. I find it strange that the director’s final statement seems so rushed, especially since, at well over 2 1/2 hours, his film takes its sweet time with everything else. Do I recommend 12? If you have the time, you’ll get some nifty images, even if they don’t fit anywhere (i.e. a great early shot of soldiers under fire while simultaneously being cheered by a crowd–a shot that has nothing to do with anything as near as I can tell). Even the final shot, which reveals what was in the dog’s mouth, doesn’t really seem connected to the whole. If you haven’t seen it lately, you should absolutely check out 12 Angry Men, which is the vastly superior film (yes, I’m saying the American version is better!). For a more thoughtful Russian film about the conflict in Chechnya, I heartily recommend Aleksandr Sokurov‘s recent Alexandra. I can only imagine what Sokurov could have done with 12. But if you do watch this film, please consider the difference between fact and opinion, and count yourself lucky if you’re never put on trial for murder in Russia. – [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 7/14/09