“12”– Revisiting “12 Angry Men”

Academy Award nominee for best foreign film in 2008, “12″ is a Russian interpretation of “12 Angry Men” (1957) starring Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb.

If “Twelve Angry Men” argued for the right to a fair trial in the time of McCarthyism, “12” dramatizes anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, class warfare, and hatred for Chechens. The majority of the jurors are grim middle-aged men who carry the scars of the turbulent history of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, twelve jurors weigh the fate of a Chechen teenager accused of murdering his stepfather, who was a Russian officer.  An all-male jury will decide the teenager’s fate but also their own, as either men of moral principle or not.   They represent a cross-section of today’s Russia with six jurors’ monologues becoming pivotal to the final decision: a wealthy television producer, a cemetery owner, a bigoted cab driver, a wealthy entrepreneur in cell phone technology, an elderly Holocaust survivor, and a wealthy surgeon. It is assumed that the young man charged with murder is guilty. A hasty vote shows 11 for convicting, one against. The jurors are anxious to agree on a resolution and be done with it.

Inside the jury room, as in the streets, the battle for tolerance and reason plays out–the Russian version of “12 Angry Men” becomes a political allegory for persuading the one dissenting juror to follow the others.  What results in the divisiveness is the realization that persuading anyone to change his opinion is virtually impossible.

Six monologues by six different jurors are the cornerstone of the allegory, slowly revealing their secret lives as well as their racism, fear, survival, compassion,  nationalism, and/or nostalgia for the “old Russia” before immigrants moved in. Each juror is riveting, changing the dynamics of the “guilty-or-not-guilty” decision process, as he tries to persuade the other jurors to change their views. By the film’s midpoint, the jurors have become murderously intense.

One of my few criticisms of this superb film is the interjection into the narrative of disturbing, violent flashbacks of war-ravaged Chechnya as well as repeated scenes of the accused teenager pacing back and forth in his cell, awaiting the verdict.  After a few flashbacks, the continuous repetition proves monotonous and adds unnecessarily to the length of this film.  Nonetheless, the actors are unflinching in their portrayal of the psychology of prejudice and overconfidence in the truth of one’s beliefs. The film’s kinetic rhythm of what innocence and guilt entails is, at times, horrific.  Truly a brilliant film worth two hours of anyone’s time!

Comments (2)

  • One of the best movies I’ve seen on TV. The effect of making it so emphatically Russian in character was fascinating. The story sure plays differently in post-Soviet Russia. The location of a gym was perfect for the dozen ferocious performers sequestered there… it ends up a vivid portrait of Russian society. And I particularly loved the entrance of the sparrow becoming yet another prisoner.

    • Yes, there is so much to this film with symbolism of the gym, bathroom, sparrow, and prison-like windows. I loved your comment about the sparrow! It is truly a superb insight into post-Soviet Union Russia but also into the universal theme of overconfidence in one’s own judgement and values.

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