Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
I walked to E Street thinking, “Does 12 Angry Men, an American classic more than 50 years old, require a Russian update?” I’m not necessarily sure it does. Still, Nikita Mikhalkov‘s 12 does offer audiences a fresh approach to the familiar story. Broadly speaking, the characters and developments are the same. The dialog and long anecdotes have a distinctly Russian feel (characters often note this), and there are some stylistic flourishes that take the audience out of the deliberation room. Often Mikhalkov overwhelms the simple story with excessive direction, a fact which nearly derails the movie, but the overall effect is persuasive.
Twelve men from varying backgrounds are told to determine whether a young immigrant is guilty of first degree murder. Instead of an ethnically ambiguous NYC kid from the wrong side of the tracks, we now have a Chechen accused of murdering his step father, a Russian army officer. Everyone involved, even the bailiff, thinks a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion. The courthouse is in repair, so the men are herded into a high school gymnasium, complete with medicine balls and gym mats. One lone juror, a nervous looking man in a suit, decides to vote not guilty. Unlike Henry Fonda in Lumet’s feature, this man is not particularly hung up on the idea of reasonable doubt. Instead he simply thinks a man’s livelihood requires some discussion. So the men begin to talk. A cab driver does not hide his contempt for Chechens and Jews. The Jewish juror does not seem to mind, and comments on each interesting twist. All the jurors, even the dim one with verbal tics, gets one long monologue about their personal lives. Meanwhile we get flashbacks to the defendants life as a Chechen refugee, and see the hardships he suffered.
12 is at its best when considering it alongside the American original. For example, it’s fascinating to think how differently Americans and Russians express anger. Emotions play an even higher role here. At one point the Cab Driver uses a protracted anecdote to appeal directly to a juror’s fears, and successfully switches his vote. All the characters seem obsessed with the wisdom one gains from suffering. The Nervous Man uses a descent into alcoholic abyss as justification for his decision. Another one discusses the Russian over-reliance on laughter as a means to disguise fear. Together the jurors reconstruct the famous sequences from 12 Angry Men. Remember when Henry Fonda deliberately walks around the jury room to determine how long it would take the old man to reach a window? It’s recreated here, but with an animated zeal that takes on a strangely comic tone. Like the Lumet classic, the performances are all uniformly strong. No character is given a name, yet they all have distinct personalities. I particularly liked the crazed Cab Driver and the Chechen surgeon who knows how to bust a move with a military-issue knife. Of course you already know the verdict this jury reaches. Yet there is one final fascinating debate, one that calls into question the value of mercy over justice.
I think I’ve mentioned in this column before I’ve served as a juror on a first degree murder trial before. The experience is nothing like 12 Angry Men, so there’s absolutely no way it’s like 12. Still, I found revisiting 12 Angry Men helpful in the deliberation process, and I therefore have no doubt 12 would help me serve on a Russian jury. Mikhalkov’s meandering story clocks in at a little over two and a half hours, and sometimes feel too lazily paced. Some monologues become tedious, the editing (particularly in the beginning) is too showy, and the Chechen flashbacks repeat the same shots over and over again. The director is clearly bursting with ideas, sometimes to the detriment of the story. His effort is nonetheless a noble one, and it merits careful attention. Sure, the movie is not absolutely essential, but it is absorbing, especially if you’re interested in how completely alien values turn the American original into something distinctively unique.
Here are other classic legal thrillers that would make for an interesting remake in the hands of the right director:
Judgment at Nuremberg. My former roommate, a gay man 20 years my senior with a strong affinity for Hollywood’s golden age, considered me a philistine for never seeing this movie. After finally watching it, I can see his point – the movie deals with serious issues in an surprisingly engaging manner, and is a showcase for several major stars. Spencer Tracy plays Judge Haywood, a quiet man whose task genuinely humbles him. Chief among the Nuremberg defendants is Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), who proudly tries to rationalization how decent people could be complicit in monstrous act. Of course, the prosecuting attorney (Richard Widmark) is having none of it, and intends to portray the defendants as wholly evil. Haywood finds some middle ground between viewpoints, and gets help from Mrs. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), who helps demonstrate how an entire nation can turn a blind eye. Ultimately it is Maximilian Schell, who plays the defense attorney seen above, who has the most captivating scenes*. The courtroom arguments are fierce and sometimes disturbing (the prosecutor shows a film reel of mass graves), yet sharp performances and well-drawn characters keep the story from becoming too somber. It may be long (there’s an intermission), but the engaging subject will make time fly by.
* Doesn’t he kinda look like Sacha Baron Cohen?
Anatomy of a Murder. It’s funny how James Stewart is sometimes an annoyingly affected actor, yet his performances always find the right notes. That’s the case in this small-town legal thriller. Stewart plays Paul Biegler, a broke small-town lawyer who has a big case fall on his lap. Lieutenant Manion (a very young Ben Gazzara) kills a bartender because the bartender allegedly raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Soon a big-time prosecutor (George C. Scott) arrives, and Biegler has to sort through the dubious motives of those involved. Laura is not exactly an innocent damsel in distress – she’s a flirt who may have had a relationship with the bartender. Lieutenant Manion is not exactly a pillar of virtue with a who underwent a momentary lapse of sanity – he’s deeply possessive and with a violent streak. Biegler first appears overwhelmed by the task at hand, and ultimately rises to the challenge with a clever legal defense. Courtroom dramas are a dime a dozen – you should still rent Anatomy of a Murder for its gorgeous black-and-white camerawork, its sharp performances, and above all for its surprisingly wry script. The business regarding use of the word “panties” alone should justify a rental.
Rashomon. Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded for his samurai epics, but it is this unnerving fable that left the strongest impression on me. In the midst of jury deliberations, I even cited the movie as a reason why others should be skeptical of witness testimony, and why one juror in particular should not confuse credibility with accuracy. Set in feudal Japan, the story revolves around four testimonies of a vicious crime – the rape of a woman the supposed murder of her samurai husband. The witnesses look directly act the camera, inviting the audience to function as the jury. Kurosawa then reconstructions the testimony, and naturally all the stories contradict one another. The woman claims to be unsure whether the murder took place, the bandit claims he seduced the woman and is innocent of the murder. Serving as a conduit for the dead man’s spirit, a thoroughly creepy medium says the samurai killed himself out of shame (as all samurai are wont to do). The culmination of all these contradictions is deep feelings of unease, and doubt that one can ever arrive at truth. Unlike the other courtroom dramas in this column, Rashomon clocks in at a quick 88 minutes. You really have no excuse to avoid this one, especially since its title has become pop culture shorthand.