Photo by Milena Botova/Sony Pictures Classics.
I finally got around to seeing Nikita Mikhalkov’s film, 12. Released in 2007, it only recently became available in the U.S. through Netflix. I’ve been climbing the walls in anticipation. 12 is Mikhalkov’s remake of the American play/film, Twelve Angry Men. Set in Russia, the jurors decide the fate of a Chechen boy accused of murder. It is VERY GOOD and you should see it. Go watch it and come back and finish reading this, ok?
For those of you who are neither film buffs nor interested in Russia (how do I know you? why are you here?), Nikita Mikhalkov is the director of the Oscar-winning 1994 film, Burnt by the Sun. If you haven’t seen Burnt by the Sun, I recommend it too. It’s stunningly beautiful, simultaneously sentimental yet critical about the Stalin era, a real gem of a film. You might remember that he carried his little daughter on his shoulders when he accepted the award. It was beyond adorable and we were all still feeling so good about ourselves after the recent collapse of the USSR. Those were the days… I suspect if it were released for the first time today, in the current political climate, it would have a radically different interpretation and reception than it received in 1994.
Mikhalkov gets a whole lot of heat. I’m not entirely convinced he doesn’t deserve some of it, given the amazing amount of hype he also drums up. Almost immediately after the success of Burnt By the Sun, it became fashionable to criticize his films for their sleek Hollywood aesthetics and patriotic agendas. The director himself has elicited charges of self-promotion, both in response to his films, which are vehicles for his own celebrity, and also for his role in the Russian film industry, which is a petri dish for egomania in its own right. It’s difficult to deny that he doesn’t mind being the center of attention, but it is more difficult to explain why he shouldn’t be. More recently his vocal support of one Vladimir V. Putin has garnered a lot of attention. It doesn’t bother me, but some people kinda consider him an ambitious sycophant. Some people lack the capacity for nuance, and possibly a heart.
Why Some People Do Not Like 12:
I’ve been climbing the walls in anticipation because critical reception of 12 was mixed at best. I mean, it is a remake. What kind of genius makes remakes, right? Also, now that Nikita has revealed himself to be a political animal, a lot of attention is paid to how honestly the film portrays the questionably administrated Russian legal system and to deciphering what Russophiliac pro-Putin propaganda Mikhalkov might be trying to peddle. The always keen Yasha Levine (ooh, that rhymed) wrote a scathing review of 12 for the eXile, arguing that 12 is little more that an cheap poltical stunt to show how corruption is not only a national characteristic (get yer legal nihilism on! get yer big Russian soul on!) but even a merciful one, and thus … Putin should be given a 3rd term.
My immediate reaction (after “and why would that be a bad thing?”) to Yasha is to insist that the film be judged on its own merits and not the politics of the director/producer/actor. However, I’ve more than once proclaimed, with unearned authority, that due to historical precedent all Russian film is political, because even making a non-political film is a political act in that country. From its very inception the Russian film industry has been cultivated by the State for achieving ideological ends and largely dependent upon the State for funding and career advancement. Being an esteemed filmmaker in Russia carries a cache it just doesn’t elsewhere. They don’t see themselves as an entertainment industry so much as creators, guardians or documentarains of a whole freaking national identity. It’s madness, really. So maybe Yasha is right. How do I know why Nikita made this film?
My grief with Yasha’s approach to film is twofold. First, when you read that review you get the impression that 12 is a cheap political stunt, but the only overtly partisan moment in the movie is when the lights go out someone blames Chubais. The film’s agenda is pro-Putin only in the way Goodnight and Goodluck is anti-Bush. You’d also get the impression from Levine that political agendas trump artistic merit. In that case, we should throw out the better part of all Russian cinema. Let’s take this to its logical conclusion: Leni Riefenstahl? Boo. Skip it. Colossal waste of time. But is it? The fact is talent, skill and being on the wrong side of history are not mutually exclusive. And history has yet to decide which side Mikhalkov is on. Moreover, films are products of their time and place, trapped in contemporaneity like few other mediums. As a result, they are quite informative from a cultural anthropology standpoint. Worst case scenario? 12 captures a Zeitgeist and becomes a cringe-inducing symbol of the political machinations of the Putin era. But this is not a valid reason not to see it.
Secondly, if the film can’t be judged without reference to its political context, it can’t be judged without reference to its artistic merit. Yasha’s like a realtor who takes you through the backdoor and only shows you the basement. Sure, you want to see the foundation, the mildew and go spelunking through the dark corridors, looking for ghosts, but what about the rest of the joint, the place where people live? What about the 2 hours and 40 minutes of film you actually sit through? It’s has to count for something, right? The questions are 1) is the message of the film a problem, and if yes, 2) is everything else about it what you are looking for in a film? Yasha makes the first decision for you and totally ignores the second. Me, I am making the second decision for you: it is! and letting you draw your own conclusion about the first.
Why I Like 12:
~It is quintessentially Russian. Whatever the hell that means.
I have never seen Twelve Angry Men, so while I may have a gaping hole in my repertoire of knowledge where the American film should be, I didn’t have to spend the whole 2 hours and 40 minutes comparing 12 to something else. I can’t testify to its faithfulness to the original, but I suspect it is more accurate to describe 12 as an adaptation than a remake because I found the film to be very … Russian. I’m not simply referring to the setting or plot elements, or even how the jurors give monologues on the nature of the Russian soul. Or the fact there is a moratorium on the death penalty in Russia, unlike in America. No, I am referring to matters more subtle and poignant. The dynamics of the cast, for example, which are as touching and endearing as they are frightening and confrontational, sometimes all simultaneously. The tone of the film is another aspect. It combines slapstick comedy and whimsy with gravity and horrors, and even includes a monologue exposing and condemning the Russian penchant for doing precisely this.
The film channels Dostoyevsky in droves, from the ensemble cast of characters, each less an average or realistic human being than the representation of an idea, philosophy, class or morality, to the murder, from the length, to perhaps the most obvious: a really just totally unnecessarily heavy-handed religious message slapped abrasively onto the end. Every time I read Mr. D. I have the same reaction that I did to this film: “No! I’ve been had! I thought I was enjoying this circus of ideas and melodrama and all along it was your bloody Christian propaganda! I hate you Feodor!” and I throw the book at the wall, really really hard. … Then I go back for more like girls who haven’t learned their lesson are want to do. I’m convinced the man won’t rest in peace until he finally converts this atheist. Now he’s in cahoots with Nikita, damn it.
(A note on the length. I gave myself an intermission, but it doesn’t drag. If you’ve ever actually been sequestered in a jury room, you see he’s not going for cinema verite here.)
Another point of comparison it that 12 is really not about the legal system. From what I’ve read about the original, it made Americans feel fiercely proud of the triumph and efficacy of their sacred institution of trial by jury. Having been in an American jury room, my experience was that the complete absence of distractions, the claustrophobic space and its location on the premises of a hallowed court all inspire a sense of sobriety and a vibe not unlike that at an SAT exam. Mikhalkov’s jury room is under remont -is there anything more Russian than being under remont?- so they must use a school gym for their deliberations. Insert metaphor here! 12 seems to suggest that legal systems, political systems, whatever systems come and go, but people should be compassionate regardless of their system du jour, despite its failures, or indeed precisely because of its failures. It was not pedantic about right v. wrong, winners or losers, or the merits of the legal system. It is mostly about humanity and redemption and aspiring to a higher responsibility. Well, that’s what I got from it, anyway.
~Treatment of Chechnya.
There are many of scenes devoted to the boy on trial, both in his homeland and in his prison cell. These are times when Mikhalkov lets the camera do the talking, providing snapshots of his life, and sometimes pausing to meditate on them. A good decision, since it not only provides a balance to the filmed stage play that is the jury room, but evokes the emotions associated with Chechnya, the horrors of the war, the pride of the people, the memories of a child. It doesn’t gloss over atrocities, and the last scene will probably be one I never forget. It also, without feeling too forced, challenges our assumptions. Apartment building stairwells, picnicking with bandits and a dagger come to mean different things over the course of the film. The boy is repeatedly shown doing a dance, as a child in Chechnya and in his Moscow prison cell. It’s not a silly fun dance done to pass the time, but a folk dance that obviously requires skill and discipline and looks absolutely brilliant! I want to learn to do that dance! Wow.
Having seen this and Sokurov’s Aleksandra, I can’t be convinced that Russia, or at least it’s better filmmakers, is unwilling to confront its recent past. Both films take care to show the impact war has had on the people of Chechnya. There’s no chest thumping, nor a blanket condemnation of the war or Russia’s role in it. I think it is a lot more complicated than that. But in both films there is a sense of responsibility. I do think an argument can be made that this paternal approach smacks of colonialism. Maybe someone has written something about that.
12 is gorgeously shot, which is impressive since it mostly takes place inside a school gymnasium. The magical and poetic leitmotifs that characterized Burnt by the Sun show up here. It’s charming. What is the meaning of the little bird? The camera work is not formalist but it is dynamic, keeping what could be a boring film moving. Mikhalkov makes a lot of the lighting, which is a little personal criteria of mine when deciding the creative merit of a film, like an after-dinner coffee at nice restaurant. The acting is phenomenal. I’m the breed of cineaste who thinks acting is best left to the theater, but Sergei Garmash’s performance in this is really worth the rental fee alone. Mikhalkov’s role as the 12th juror, or apostle, or the conscience of the group, or its Savior, complete with a hairdo that evoke a child’s image of God, is admittedly insanely egomaniacal. But it’s also a technically (if not symbolically) very small roll; most of his lines are in the last few minutes of the very long film. Some critics have complained that the characters are unrealistic stereotypes, but if Mikhalkov was going for Dostoyevsky, it works on the whole, with the use of stock characters in a philosophical exercise. The film really is a far more psychological or metaphysical affair than an emotional drama or political statement, which allows him some creative license. If he was going for Mr. D.’s intellectual sophistication, well, the thing is, he isn’t. So, the downside is that it doesn’t stand up to a lot of rational scrutiny, but the upside is it is very watchable indeed.
I think I very much liked this film because it managed to pull off that annoying “do the right thing” Hollywood moral of the story b.s. in a way that was incredibly easy for me to swallow. Normally this formula pisses me off, because it’s always a heroic dramatic gesture that people can see, something big like saving the world, that seems to serve no purpose beyond confirming the hero’s goodness. And it shouldn’t be about heroes, exceptionally self-less people who save us from villains. I hate this mythology and what it has done to my country, to be honest. But give me a movie about rather pathetic individuals who decide to be merciful simply because they possess the capacity of empathy, and damn I am hooked. I want to be a better person already! Yes! Throw in some Russian kitsch and, I’m a sucker. FWIW, I don’t think of myself as a “russophile” and am not religious at all. I do have an icon on the bookshelf in the corner, but I don’t think it’s channeling a supernatural power. When it comes to some policies I do support Putin, but this movie didn’t even make me think about him until the end when the real villains are shown. This would seem to contradict Yasha’s thesis. In fact, the whole ending concerns a debate on the ethics of sending the kid out into the corrupt and dangerous Moscow streets where the law will fail to protect him, which hardly supports a pro-corruption theory. 12 probably does promote ambivalence about corruption and acceptance of it as a fact of life, but it overwhelmingly appeals to our better angels. Not so we can be heroes, but precisely because none of us are. It’s only when we can admit we’re embarrassing wrecks that we can be honest about our own humanity, and only when we are honest about our own humanity that we can be empathetic, and empathy can’t be legislated. Well, I don’t know if that’s where Nikita was going, but I’ll hop on that train.
At least they serve their Christianity with an Existentialist chaser.
While writing this I read that Sergei Mikhalkov, Nikita’s father, has died today. Apparently he wrote the Soviet and Russian national anthems. … I have a serious case of famous people’s deaths fatigue.
So much for my better angels, huh?
As always, Thanks for reading!