Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12” is the Best Movie I’ve Seen All Year


Most of the English-speaking world knows Nikita Mikhalkov as director and star of “Burnt by the Sun.” I used to think this was an excellent thing. Now I am not sure. This has to do with the fact that I want the English-speaking world to also know (and love) Nikita Mikhalkov for “12” – the movie that deserves an Oscar no less, if not more. Just so more people can see it.

“12” is a loose adaptation of “12 Angry Men.” Although modernized – (here comes my only major criticism of the movie) it is nevertheless suffering from a dearth of female characters. Women are in the margins of the picture. At one point, a peripheral (but, as we come to find out, important) character is accused of acting on “jealousy typical of a female.” This is very Russian. Very dramatic and exclusionary. Very Mikhalkov. The film could have used an injection of Inna Churikova’s famed eccentricity, or Olga Ostroumova’s charm. Testosterone is Mikhalkov’s poison and, no matter how he would respond to these words if he saw them (not that he isn’t busy and important), female jurors would have improved the integrity of the film. An all-male jury seems almost Jurassic. Though the fact that Mikhalkov doesn’t have a terrific track-record wherein female characters are concerned (Julia Ormond in “The Barber of Siberia” was, I believe, a victim of poor decisions on Mikhalkov’s part – despite a few terrific scenes, he nevertheless appears to be more skilled at developing a man’s inner world) is a story best left for another bedtime.

In all other aspects, meanwhile, this film is a masterpiece.

A Chechen teenager who keeps terrible memories is accused of murdering his adopted father, a retired Russian officer. “Uncle Volodya,” as the kid calls him, was a friend of the Chechen’s slaughtered family. The case seems simple, but the doubts of one man gradually begin to reveal its inconsistencies; revealing also, in perfect symmetry, human tragedies as modern and immediate as life in Moscow, and as old as the world.

Many Russians (and Russian-speakers) don’t like Nikita Mikhalkov. They don’t like his immodesty. They don’t like the things he says in the press. The privileged life he led under the Soviet Union – and the privileged life he leads today.

None of this, and I mean none of this, should stop anyone from seeing “’12.” I’m going to put aside the film review clichés now – talk of “great performances” and the “potent symbolism” – and focus on the body of this movie. The terrible scars that run through it. The vulnerable, human warmth of it. The mystery.

The boy dances in his prison cell, just like he danced when separatist fighters rolled into town – the handsome, powerful, briefly joyous, briefly ominous men. There is the horrible intimacy of the murdered parents – the bullethole in the mother’s beautiful face and the knife in the father’s back. A small bird hops with what seems like merry impatience next to an icon of the Virgin Mary – “if you want to fly away, go ahead… if you want to stay-stay….” a man with a weary face tells the bird – “but let this be your decision.” A massive heating pipe snaking through a school gym like a monstrous anaconda tells the story of decades of apathy and indignity that have left an entire nation in tatters. And then there are stories, stories intertwining and giving birth to new stories: makeshift nooses in the hands of children, flying knives, fresh graves overflowing with water – dirty in more ways than one.

Nikita Mikhalkov is a storyteller of Russia, but the stories themselves begin to morph and grow like shadows in the evening, capable of overtaking anyone, anywhere. The movie isn’t some exotic, tourist-y, BBC “country profile”-y jaunt through an ethnic conflict. It crushes you, resuscitates you, crushes you some more.

My friends have complained to me of this movie. Loudly. “Wtf, Mikhalkov still thinks that Russians have a shred of respect left for army officers?” – Maybe not today’s army officers. Maybe only yesterday’s. “Doesn’t he basically imply that the poor little Chechens need the big, courageous Russians to sort them out?” – Or does he actually imply that Russia has no right to shy away from responsibility for the bloody, pulpous mess in Chechnya? “Eeew, his haircut’s bad in it.” – That it is. The only physically attractive characters in this story are, in fact, the Chechens. The Russians are all rumpled, with nicotine-stained fingers.

This movie is flawed, and brilliant. See it. NOW. If you’re in the States, grab some journalist and shake him or her until a promotional copy falls out. Just kidding. But seriously – see it.

51 thoughts on “Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12” is the Best Movie I’ve Seen All Year

  1. Oh, wow. I’ll be on the lookout, then.

    I liked Burnt by the Sun. I remember finding the end incredibly upsetting, that proud old man reduced to weeping (unless i’m misremembering, it’s been a while)

  2. I look forward to seeing this. I agree with all your remarks about Mikhalkov and his image in Russia as well. Actually, I would even add to it – generally he plays the same character in all his films. He’s known for being sort of an arrogant jerk in real life. However, I think he is excellent as a director.

    Burnt by the Sun is a great movie, of course, but I would also recommend Statski Sovetnik (Mikhalkov didn’t direct that one, but Yankovsky seems to have made good use of Mikhalkov’s acting habits).

    Sadly, I see they have made a sequel to Burnt By the Sun. Supposedly Colonel Kotov escapes from some gulag and finds himself on the front lines in The Great Patriotic War as an ordinary soldier, etc.

    I’m really hoping the sequel doesn’t tarnish the original.

  3. It’s insanely hard for most men to write women. As a writer (not to say a successful one) I’ve noticed that male writers, even those who are stronger at their craft than I am on the whole, often can’t write a female character well. I think I do better than most, and that’s probably due more to a life spent mostly hanging with women rather than any innate talent. This is not any less true among published and popular authors; a lot of men write women who rarely transcend a status as props, and the ladies are lucky if they get enough attention to detail to come off as female caricatures. This reaches its logical (but extreme) conclusion with authors like Tom Robbins, who populates his books with dreamy, gorgeous women who spend all their time diddling themselves when they aren’t saving the world. I’d imagine this extends to filmmaking, to some extent.

    By the way, I really liked “Burnt by the Sun”, if this is even better I’ll be checking it out for sure.

  4. My wife and I saw this film last weekend and quite enjoyed it.

    You’re absolutely correct, women are nowhere to be seen in the film. I don’t think it’s necesarily because of Mikhailkov though. He has stuck pretty close to the plot and characters of the American versions (there have been two, at least), only modifying it so that the accused is a Chechen instead of a Latino, and that adds a bit more political controversy to it, of course.

    Personally, I think Mikhailkov’s films are either hit or miss. I liked Burnt by the Sun, Sibirski Tsiryulnik, Statsky Sovetnik, and 12, but can’t believe he stoops down to do films like Zhmurki.

  5. This movie is great, the acting is great, just saw it last night. It is not about russians or chechens, the was or the officers, the school, the past, the corrupt system. The life tradegies/experiences of the 11 men are not important. If there were more women in the jury, it would not make any difference to the bottom line. All these are just a vail that distructs some viewers from the main message, PERSONAL CHOICE OF ACTION. The plot could be different, it could have happend in any country in any setting. The bottom line is when 11 men are asked to DO something, they choose to do NOTHING. And the last words in the movie summarize just that “you can stay or you can go, but THAT WILL BE YOUR CHOICE”.
    I am interested to hear other views.

  6. I have not seen the ’12’: life is too short to watch Mikhalkov’s films. It’s pretty difficult to imagine him making a good film these days, especially an honest film about Chechnya. It’s not Mikhalov’s ‘immodesty’ that sets people off, it’s rather his dishonesty, arrogance and lack of morale. On the one hand, sociologically and politically Mikhalkov is a mouthpiece of Putin’s propaganda, but do we really want to hear Putin’s story on Chechnya? On the other hand, after ‘Burn by the Sun’ Mikhalkov has failed to produce any single film worth mentioning. He is *not* a good director, not any more: his new films are Hollywood-styled rubbish set in the Russian scenery with too much attention paid to “Russian” accessories, costumes, elements of life, but not to the story itself. Besides, the stories are far from being groundbreaking, in fact they are amazingly trivial. Oh yes, he deserves an Oscar for any of his “masterpieces” apart from ‘Burn by the Sun’, just because Oscars are not given to good films.

  7. But “12” isn’t really Mikhalkov’s story to begin with, is it?

    And anyway, I like Hollywood. 90% of it may be crap, but the other 10% really shines. It’s like sorting through stuff at a thrift store and coming away with something adorable.

  8. it’s a great movie but not the best one of him. thanks for pointing out that it lacks women’s presence(this thought didn’t cross my mind at all)but overall I’d say it’s alright without it too…
    I love Sergey Makovetskiy’s performance here, just brilliant!

  9. There are people everybody likes but when they are gone nobody would remember their names. There are movies everybody watches but not all of them make people think. I`m not sure “12” is a kind of movie I would want to watch over and over again, but it is for sure the one I would add to the list of my favourites.

  10. I saw that film on 27. Istanbul Film Festival in this Saturday. It was incredible, especially for me. My descendants migrated from Cechnya to Ottoman Empire in 130 years ago.

    Furthermore I began to learn chechen languaga just two months ago. I am looking for 12’s dvd or sth. Thats why when I was checking the internet I found your blog.

    Life is too strange and weird i think.

  11. hi, yesterday i saw this moive by TV.
    i really movement too,
    i give my honor to this film and Nikita Mikhalkov.

  12. Could someone tell me when this movie is coming to the U.S.? I’ve been looking for a copy of the DVD with english subs and i can’t seem to find one anywhere (blockbuster: no, amazon: wrong format, and ebay: nada) So could someone please mail me a link at
    Many thanks!

  13. Bravo Nikita Mihalkov!
    za poslednjih pet godina nisam videla ovakav film. Gledala noćas ”12”sama u svom domu sa DVD-a. Bez daha. I ponovo gledala, još jednom, bez daha. Zbilja je ovaj film Mihalkova sjajan, nenadmašan. On je slikar duše. Slikar čoveka. Slikar misli. Slikar trenutka i prolaznosti. U isti mah slikar očaja i nade; nesreće i sreće. Čoveka, jedinke, male i uništene. Male i tako velike!
    Hvala dragom Mihalkovu!
    Hvala od srca!
    Vera Blagojević Ugrinov. Beograd. Srbija. Evropa. Zemlja…

  14. There are two movies from now on: “Stalker”-Andrej Tarkovski and “12”- Nikita Mihalkov.
    at the end I cried “like a rain”.

  15. I just want to translate few words that Vera said above:
    Mikhalkov is a painter of a soul. Painter of a human being. Painter of thoughts. Painter of a moment and of a transiency. Hopelessness and hope. About a man, so small and destroyed; so small … but grandiose !

  16. Saw the movie ‘n yes! it’s really SOMETHING to see , tho you prolly need to have this mentality (not necessarily to be russian ) to understand all the “moments”.

  17. OH MY GOD! WHAT A MOVIE! I watched it finally for the first time today and I don’t remember when any other movie touched me so deeply. Mikhalkov, opportunistic or not, earned my new respect today. Gaft was amazing. The guy who played the Antisemite/repentant father part – how convincingly repulsive, what a wonderful actor he is!
    I wasn’t really perturbed by the fact that there were so few women in the movie; somehow it didn’t seem important, although I see your point about that being anachronistic and purely Russian, but somehow this imbalance did not interfere with the fabric of the movie one bit, for me, that is. I totally agree we need to bring the awareness of non-Russian speakers to this film.

  18. great,great,great..!!!

    i m repeating this movie for 11 days.. and there is no end.. Mikhalkov for a president.. , )
    very deep and strong,with a lot beautiful details.. i m so thankful to God for this gift..
    greetings from Kragujevac,Serbia..

  19. *** SPOILER ALERT ***

    I just saw this very fine film in New York city tonight. I just have a question. At the end, the accused boy is seen running down the steps of his house (an image also shown a few times a t the beginning). He is holding a bag, walks out into the street and hands the bag to a guy standing near a car. Is this the bag with the money? Is this supposed to show he was really guilty after all? If not, what was the meaning of this sequence? I’d appreciate some clarification from anyone who can do so.

  20. Hmmmm. I’m not sure about that, and I don’t have my DVD here with me to check. I remember the *dog* carrying something – and that being a repeated sequence. At the end of the movie, we actually see what the dog is carrying.

  21. “I want the English-speaking world to also know (and love) Nikita Mikhalkov for “12″ – the movie that deserves an Oscar no less, if not more.”

    Unfortunately I can’t support that. I liked latest movies by Mikhalkov, but there was always something troubling, something that was not right in there. Couldn’t understand what was that.

    I stumbled upon an episode on youtube recently:

    They throw eggs, he replies, and he is satisfied: his last phrase: “I managed to hit one…”

    We say that genius and evil are two things that never mix.

  22. Капец!

    Although, I think evil and genius mix pretty frequently, actually. Look at Tolstoy. Brilliant author – but a huge asshole, especially to women.

    P.S. The video you link is spliced together from several different videos. So, while Mikhalkov could very well have done it, it’s a bit inconclusive.

  23. Natalia, this page turns up at #1 on the Google search “12 Nikita Mikhalkov” — the bloggers have risen. You have so much of substance here, and I will stop by often.

    Sony Pictures Classics finally opened “12” stateside on March 4 in NYC, and it’s trickling slowly along the arthouse circuit.

    Agreed on your comments about “12” lacking substantial female presences, but I found myself focusing more on the jurors’ attitudes, the primary source of conflict and resolution, instead of their gender.

    * SEMI-SPOILER ALERT * The moment that made me think Mikhalkov had improved on perfection: the realization that an innocent verdict could be just as foreboding as imprisonment. * END S-SA *

    Also appreciated the open acknowledgment of its basis in “12 Angry Men,” and mention of Reginald Rose by name. Most Hollywood remakes lately try to downplay or flat-out hide their pasts.

    What do you think of the absence of females in “Lawrence of Arabia”?

  24. Thanks, Steve. “Lawrence of Arabia” was “Lawrence of Arabia,” I guess. I have to confess I haven’t thought about it critically. Pitched this question to my boyfriend (he’s a big fan of the movie).

    He just said that it was merely used to emphasize Lawrence’s homosexuality – his desire to be with men in a world where that was all but denied to him.

  25. Maurice. In the finale we’ve seen a person who uses the same jacket of the boy. We think is the boy but it shows clearely that was a man wearing glasses that put the similar jacket in the trunk. Of course the by is innocent. The fina scene of the dog carriyng the hand aloow us to think about the money and riches we want to have it but did not prevent to be murdered and have our parts be carriyng by any dog in the streets. I read it from a interview from Nikita in the net. I still inebriate with this maravilous movie. I’m from Brazil and aprecciate the kind of sweet and deep soul i’ve seen in this movie. Thank you Nikita.
    If my perception about the end is wrong please let you thougts. Natalia. I love it you comments. I just include that the number 12 its a figure of the time like the world, 12 apostoles, 12 months, 12 hours etc.. The choose of using just men let us focus of the manking judge . I think if they put some women the judment will loose some direction to men x women thing. You are a good soul.

  26. This is the second film by Nikita Mikhalkov that I’ve seen, and I have so enjoyed both of them. He explores the roots of what makes the men who they are, both the good and the bad. He is able to make us relate with each character, and empathize with their stories. He also unmasks each character and asks them to appeal to their souls and choose mercy over the law. I enjoy anyone who can tell a great story and bring their characters truly into 3 dimensions. Bravo on a great film.

  27. Nikita Mihalkov is great. Not only Burnt by the sun or 12 makes him great, but you should (or must) see An unfinished piece for a player piano, A slave of love, Urga etc

  28. About there being no women in the film + George’s claim that the film would start to deal with Men x Women issue: I think this statement illustrates the problem perfectly – that by bringing in women, the film would deviate from its main theme and subject matter, as if only by portraying men could these “universally human” and “neutral” themes be dealt with. I think this is a somewhat sad manifestation of our (and women’s too) convention where we think that only a Man can act out typically human themes and problems – and women characters would start focusing on gender issues – although we all deal with such things and issues in our lives.

    A note on the film itself – I was a bit astonished that there are so many great reviews about the film. I found it totally fake and hollow, although I’ve liked Mihhailkov’s earlier films. The cinematography was awfully banale (colours, camere moves) and the characters such clichés. By doing the adaptation you have to wonder why he chose to repeat the film that was originally done in the 50s – but I fail to see any extra value on M’s behalf.

    Mikhalkov’s heart is big and warm, like the “SUN”
    “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”

  30. I’ve seen this film yesterday, loved it, and I’m planning to see it again without translation because I think it distracted me a little in away that I never felt it before with any non-English films! And no I don’t think a woman character was needed in this film, I’m a woman and I may say that a woman character in this film ( may ) be a disadvantage!! the film needed to narrow down to it’s main ideas and a woman character may astray the storyline to feminism which is not needed here.!!

    Thank you.

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