Nikita Mikhalkov’s Russian legal drama 12 remakes Reginald Rose’s classic American teleplay 12 Angry Men, but Mikhalkov does more than just transplant the story to Moscow. He also opens up the structure, cutting between contentious jury deliberations and the fretful stewing of the accused, who flashes back to his war-torn youth in Chechnya. Mikhalkov plays with the location, too, placing his dozen culturally diverse jurors in a high-school gymnasium serving as a makeshift jury room. During the opening milling-about sequence, the characters explore the space, marveling at the lingerie in the girls’ locker room and fiddling with the band instruments shelved against the wall. Rarely has the voyeuristic appeal of sitting on a jury been so cleverly expressed.
But jury duty—and 12 Angry Men—is primarily about passing judgment on other human beings, and here, Mikhalkov and his co-screenwriters follow Rose too closely. 12 Angry Men gradually, speech-by-speech, reveals a rush to conviction steeped in the jurors’ biases: against young people, against minorities, against tedium, and so on. In 12, some jurors refuse to consider the accused’s possible innocence because he’s Chechen, and their lengthy rants about Moscow’s immigrant-hastened decline sound so much like the dialogue in the original that at times 12 plays like a clumsily retrofitted regional-theater production. (And the way Mikhalkov zooms the camera around doesn’t help, because his attempts to make the story cinematic only draw more attention to how stagy it is.)
To the extent that 12 survives Mikhalkov’s awkward translation, it’s because Rose’s premise remains compelling. There’s something inherently exciting about watching a cross-section of humanity gather, bond over common interests, then tear each other apart over deeply ingrained differences. Mikhalkov opens the film with the aphorism, “Seek the truth not in the mundane details of daily life, but in the essence of itself,” and much of the drama in 12 derives from the way the characters work to overcome the minutiae of their prejudices in order to understand the philosophical essence of their disagreements. If they crack under the strain, it’s only because of how frustrating it can be to succumb to relativism.