Following a three-day murder trial, a bailiff leads the jury out to deliberate. “You’ll be done in 20 minutes,” he assures them, seriously underestimating the task of reaching a unanimous verdict. Though 11 jurors, confident that the defendant is guilty, are eager to conclude their business ASAP, the 12th insists on slowing things down. “This is a human being facing a life sentence,” he reminds the others. A successful engineer, he recounts how a stranger’s compassion once rescued him from suicidal degradation, and he demands the same consideration for the defendant, a young Chechen accused of killing his Russian stepfather. The alleged patricide’s fate hangs in the balance as day morphs into night, and each of the jurors offers revelations about himself.
It happened that I was called to jury duty a week before seeing 12. After a full day in the Bexar County Courthouse, during which the closest I got to being impaneled was voir dire in a DUI case, I was thanked and paid $6 — a bit less than the price of a movie ticket. Yet I would have gladly surrendered that amount to perform jury duty with the fascinating citizens summoned by Nikita Mikhalkov. The Russian director, who was also responsible for the magnificent Burnt by the Sun and A Slave of Love, appears in his new film as a kind of Prospero. A watercolor painter, he serves as the jury’s foreman, a benign impresario of judicial stagecraft.
As a disinterested assessment of legal guilt, the proceedings are both preposterous and unsettling. The votes swing back and forth as jurors recount episodes from their own lives only marginally relevant to what they are supposed to be adjudicating. A cemetery director doubts the honesty of prosecution witnesses because of his personal experience with bribery. A surgeon favors the accused because he, too, hails from the Caucasus. A nationalistic cabbie resentful of the hybridization of the Russian population is certain that “that stinking Chechen dog” is a murderer and rails against the “Jewish logic” of a juror who disagrees.
“What a Russian story!” exclaims another juror, a TV producer, after someone recounts an anecdote about his dying grandmother. Mikhalkov has created a very Russian film by adapting a very American work – 12 Angry Men, the 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose that Sidney Lumet made into a feature film in 1957 and William Friedkin into a 1997 TV movie. The Russian troubles in Chechnya figure significantly in this version, which occasionally cuts from the jury deliberations to scenes of violence in the Caucasus. Because the courthouse jury room is being renovated, the jurors are sequestered across the street in a school gymnasium, which not only provides the distraction of parallel bars, weights, and a piano, but also evokes the deadly crisis of 2004 when Chechen militants held hundreds hostage in a school gym in Beslan. It is not likely that a contemporary American jury would be composed, as this one is, exclusively of seasoned men of a certain age. And it does not seem proper that any jury jab at the truth about a fatal stabbing the way this one does. But the process is riveting, beyond a reasonable doubt.