Approved. It's one of those movies that lots of people should watch. It's got heavy content. After all, it is about a murder trial. Because these men are deliberating about this murder trial, some of the descriptions get pretty grizzly for an older movie. But the real red flags involve racism and sexism. One of the men is outright a bigot, while others are prejudicial. But the fact that every single person involved in this movie is a white male, we have to take into account the bad behavior of white males. Approved.
DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet
This is intimidating! I have to write about 12 Angry Men? I mean, I've written about my fair share of classics. It's not like it isn't do-able. But 12 Angry Men is one of those movies that matters. It's a movie that has essays written about it. There has to be scholarly studies devoted to just this film. Not only that, but it's also a famous play, so we can add that to the list of pop culture study that I'm adding to the pile. What can I say that's possibly new about this movie? I did something that puts me a little at ease. Considering that I've officially been writing this blog for over four years, I looked at the quality of my initial writing. Boy, it's pretty simplistic. I guess Stephen King's On Writing was accurate about writing every day. (I actually haven't read it. It's sitting on my bookshelf, daring me to read it. Instead, I'll read his Dark Tower books instead.)
I never planned to make this blog at all political. I know, the absence of politics is actually a form of politics. But my plan was to just talk about movies. I suppose that absorbing massive amounts of artistic output would have an effect on me. I mean, it tends to lean that way. The more we expose ourselves to voices that have meaning, the more we change ourselves in tiny little ways. Some people might say that film, books, and television have brainwashed me into being an aggressive little progressive. But instead, I find myself happy that I'm coming around to some ideas that younger me might have avoided completely. I think the last time I watched 12 Angry Men, I wasn't as progressive. I still loved the film. I knew that it had moved me and probably shifted my philosophical perspective. But part of me always thought that it was weird that a family might not have been receiving justice.
See, I've done jury duty before. It's one of those things that makes you think and rethink every choice you have made. One of the major ideas that I got out of jury duty that 12 Angry Men plays up is the concept of reasonable doubt. I wish the word wasn't "reasonable." That is the most subjective word imaginable. Just to give you the heads up, the guy I was trying was found not guilty, despite the fact that I went into the room with a guilty inclination. 12 Angry Men takes a bold stance and really fights for a cause with both fists blazing. It aggressively states something that is built into our legal system: defendants are innocent until proven guilty. This is where the whole thing gets a lot more complex than I thought I was ready for. If all defendants are innocent until proven guilty, how does one prove someone guilty? Since I can't give too many details about my anecdotal experience, I can say that the following thought ran through my brain: "How can someone be proven guilty shy of a camera catching the person in the act?" Everything is people either doing their best to recount information that cannot be trusted or they might outright be lying. It's so hard to actually get justice for victims.
But what 12 Angry Men says, mostly through subtext but sometimes outright, is that society is the one craving justice for victims. Very rarely in the film does anyone actually think about the family of the man killed. Sure, it's tough to say that out loud because the defendant was his kid. But Americans have been bred with this sense of absolute trust in the justice system. If someone gets to the courtroom phase of a trial, the system can't have failed that many times before that point. The police are confident that there's enough evidence to go to trial, so the trial occurs. It's something that we should believe in because we've been told about the infallibility of our legal system. But the movie stresses that Henry Fonda's Juror 8 is a rare breed. I don't know how many people put the due diligence into being a juror. I mean, 8 walked the neighborhood where this happened. He did the leg work that the lawyer didn't. He found holes in the testimony. And even he understands that there's a very real chance that the kid killed his dad. The movie doesn't really give us what we oh-so-desperately want. We want clarity. We want confirmation that this kid either did do it or he didn't. This ambiguous nonsense is frustrating as heck. And that frustration is very real. The movie captures something that I think about all the time. I often think about what happened to that guy. The evil part of me thinks that he got into trouble for something else and that I put a criminal out on the street. But I also have to think that I didn't put an innocent man in prison. That's something that 12 Angry Men does.
For as good of a system as we have for justice, there's something horrifying that goes into the idea that there are innocent people in prison. Hippie me got on board that pretty recently. When America becomes someone's jailer, that's way worse than imaginary justice for someone. If the kid in 12 Angry Men didn't kill his dad, then he would be in jail with a dead father. No one would actually have received justice. They would have just received a lie about someone everyone thinks committed a crime.
It's the personalities of the men in the room that is probably the most striking. I mean, the conceit of the film is apparent pretty early on. Juror 8 is the only holdout for a Guilty verdict. Through discussion and drama, individuals start coming around to his way of thinking. One at a time, hearts change. I don't know how realistic this is, especially considering some of the toxic personalities in the room. There are a handful of bigots and racists in the room. There's an abusive guy. It's funny, because we think of Juror 8 as being this charismatic guy who can sway hearts. But, instead, it is often the reaction to others in the room as opposed to the actions of Juror 8 that really do the most heavy lifting. When Juror 8 speaks, it often isn't out of a place of emotion. I'm not saying that Fonda doesn't emote. He emotes the crap out of this movie. But I am saying that his type of persuasion is one of logic. He presents holes in arguments with clarity. It's the people being told that they are wrong that sway the others. It's really interesting. What happens is a study on how people change. When Juror 3, played by Lee Cobb, gets upset at 8 for letting this kid off the hook, Juror 3 doesn't change. It's someone else in the room. The tighter that people hold onto their opinions doesn't allow them the grace for change, but it is the role of the outsider that sees the exchange objectively. After all, Juror 9 doesn't actually believe that the kid isn't guilty when he first changes his vote. He's simply swayed by the fact that no one is giving Juror 8 a fair shake to make his case.
This might be a near perfect film. Sure, I wish that we had some women in there. All white males may be an accurate representation of juries, but there are times when I feel like it gets to be a bit repetitive with the same personality types going back and forth. Also, that doubt, while a fundamental takeaway of a story like this, means that we have a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. I wish that there was a charismatic character on the guilty verdict side to counter Henry Fonda's underdog character. But ultimately, it tells the story really well. For being a bottle film for the most part, it is riveting. Like Rope, it uses the passage of time effectively. It's a classic for a reason, after all.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.