12 Angry Men starts off in a rush of righteous certainty. There is a young man from the wrong part of town, on trial for the killing of his own father, and he is guilty. This much is obvious to everyone in the courtroom -- the prosecutors have had a field day with an abundance of witness testimony, while the court-appointed defense has been barely competent and seemingly resigned to the young man’s guilt. Even the judge is bored and weary as he gives the jury their customary pre-deliberation instructions. The penalty for this crime, he says, is death.
The jurors are not truly bad men, but this case has brought out the worst aspects of their personalities. One is frivolous, obsessed with baseball to the point where he is preoccupied more with making that night’s game than with the life of the young man on trial. Another is a racist, willing to convict the young man on no more evidence than he is one of “them”. A stockbroker on the jury is stern and unyielding, moved only by logic and seemingly devoid of empathy. Still another, the most passionate of the young man’s detractors, hides a private family pain behind a low, humming sadism. The rest of the jury vary in the strength of their personalities and biases, but almost all vote to send the young man to the electric chair. Their deliberations on this initial vote take all of five minutes.
Only one has taken the judge’s initial characterization of their duty as a “grave responsibility” seriously. Juror No. 8 has a reasonable doubt which leads him to vote “not guilty”. Everyone else has found the evidence compelling, but none of them save for him has given it more than a cursory glance. He points out the smallest of inconsistencies at first -- how they dismiss the young man’s memory but hold other witness testimony to be sacrosanct. How recollections can be twisted through distance and circumstance. How knowing the right way to stab someone with a knife can actually be evidence for innocence. These small inconsistencies lead up to a much larger conclusion: that the young man may not be guilty.
The initial reaction to his obstinacy is (unsurprisingly, considering the movie’s title) anger, tinged with disbelief. The sadistic man in particular seems to regard Juror No. 8 as from another world entirely. One by one, however, the other jurors gradually come around to No. 8’s side, as they’re equal parts convinced, shamed, and outright converted into a “not guilty” vote.
12 Angry Men is one of the few films regarded as significant enough to warrant preservation by the Library of Congress. On the surface, one could say this is due to the film’s baseline cinematic qualities. It lets its assembled character actors shine -- although much of the attention is focused on Henry Fonda’s Juror No. 8, each juror’s gradual conversion is treated as momentous and worthy of attention. Sidney Lumet, the film’s director who recently passed at the age of 89, manages to make the jury room (in which the overwhelming majority of the film is set) feel at turns vast and cramped. The first parts of the film are shot from above, emphasizing the space between the men at the jury table, and Juror No. 8’s isolation. By the end, the camera has lowered and tightened, and everyone is trapped in their own doubts and insecurities.
It’s a really masterful piece of directing, but that’s not the real reason why 12 Angry Men is so important.
It is like few other films in that it is about something. The film, and the play on which it was based, cannot be reduced to summaries of “so there are these guys, right, and they’re in this room, and some stuff happens” like you could with, say, Transformers. 12 Angry Men is a love letter to the very idea of a trial by one’s peers. It says to the audience that duty and responsibility are not abstract things -- that they’re concepts made real through their application in the form of justice. The film believes in justice -- that real people in the young man’s position should have nothing to fear, because Juror No. 8 shouldn't be an exceptional case. He’s not noticeably smarter or more charismatic than the other jurors, or louder, or more emotional. What he is is a man who is confronted with the decision of whether or not to sentence a man to die, and treats that decision as the most important one he’s ever made.
12 Angry Men is a film that remembers that everything matters, even the life of a street rat whose guilt and death are practically preordained. It’s an idealistic film -- almost naive -- but it possesses the type of idealism that is unyielding in its belief. Watching it implants a reasonable doubt in the minds of its viewers; the kind of doubt that changes minds, careers, and lives.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.