With 12 Angry Men, director Sidney Lumet and writer Reginald Rose were able to reflect our society in the characters of this jury, confining them to one room and building the film into a crackling dialogue on societal issues. But they are also able to reflect societal ideals regarding democracy and the judicial process. It is hard to believe that a masterpiece like this was Lumet’s debut, as the purpose that he frames each shot with, and the patience he’s able to capture the building tension with would point to a director that you’d think would be working for decades building his craft. This is not the type of film that is elevated by performances, but instead it is the type of film where the performances and direction go hand in hand, Lumet as responsible for the superb acting as the actors themselves. At a tight 95 minutes, the script and direction kept everything moving at a brisk pace, building into a poignant climax, but even the quiet scenes intended to allow us to catch our breath also serve this purpose of allowing us to catch up with and understand certain characters. Simply put, a beautifully crafted, tightly written and purposefully directed masterpiece.
As the film opens, and the jury is dismissed and exits the courtroom to their respective room to make the decision about a man’s life, we get a close-up of the man, or should I say 18 year old kid, on trial, and this close-up right away allows us to connect with this kid on trial, even though we will not see him for the rest of the picture. He’s young, with tears welling up in his eyes and a look on his face that tells us that he doesn’t want the fate that awaits him. And this face stays on screen as we see the jury enter the room, and it slowly fades away, and for the rest of the picture that face haunts the screen, a presence hanging over the room. He’s a young 18 year old kid accused of killing his father, and this jury will decide his fate. Guilty means death penalty, and not guilty means acquittal. It is literally a matter of life and death, and what follows the opening minute in the court is about building tension, building bonds and building characters, throwing twists at us that feel organic, and giving each character this emotional core that kept us sympathizing with them even though we may have disagreed with their point of view.
Through these characters we get great moments that allude to deeper, societal issues that exist outside of this one room. When Juror no 10 is describing the man on trial, and talking about his background and how he’s from the slums, so he must be guilty. They’re basically animals according to him. Killing is nothing to them. And even looking at this in the context of today’s society, the way that this juror described the victim was very reminiscent of the way Darren Wilson described Mike Brown, more monster than human, and looking at it through the guise of today’s society and the racial tension crackling under the surface, and this man’s words were haunting and disgustingly real, yet even at that time we could see societal prejudices echo through time into the present day. In this film this man’s words reflect class issues, but if we connect that to today and we could relate it to the race issues that are still unfortunately prevalent in society.
Through the eyes of Juror no. 11 we get these ideas about democracy brought up through the eyes of an immigrant, and this idealistic viewpoint on what democracy means. The speech he delivers is beautiful, heartfelt and moving about the meaning of democracy, and the beauty in what they’re doing, deciding a man’s life, and they at least owe him that, and through the eyes of this man we not only see what America could be but we also understand what America should be. The judicial process is taken for granted, yet through the eyes of this man we get the sense that what this jury is doing in this room is special, even if nobody else will see it that way.
Getting to the other characters, Juror no. 3 is the executioner should the defendant be found guilty, and he is the most stubborn, unable to listen to logic and reason. Yet, there is this relatable core to his character as we get to understand the complicated relationship he has with his own son. Juror no. 5 starts out quiet and withdrawn, but as we learn more about get to understand how he may have shared a similar childhood as the defendant, growing up in the slums, and this man’s understands who the defendant is, and thus there is more depth to him than what we initially see. Juror no. 8, played by Henry Fonda, is the reason we have a movie in the first place. He is the man who did not vote guilty initially, and losing the vote 11-1 it was his job to convince the others to talk it out. This was a man who we did not learn much about in terms of his background, yet we sympathize with him because his story is the classic David vs Goliath story. An underdog story and he was able to change some minds. He starts off the film unsure of whether the defendant is guilty or not, and when everybody votes guilty he votes innocent just because it’s right. They are deciding the fate of a man’s life, and that deserves more attention than a quick vote and execution.
There is a question asked of Fonda’s character as he’s exiting the bathroom. Since he’s not convinced this kid is guilty and doesn’t want to send an innocent man to his death, the question is asked of him, what if the man is guilty, and he’s ready to let a murderer back out onto the street. And that question, even though Fonda never directly answers, adds a layer of complexity and depth to the proceedings as we are reminded that there is more than his life hanging in the balance. There is also the question of, if this kid is actually guilty, then they are potentially ready to let a killer back onto the streets, and that is what this film is: A complex, philosophical debate about democracy and the judicial system which not only highlight the flaws, but also capture the ideals, shining a light on societal issues and pressures along the way, just the first of many Sidney Lumet masterpieces.
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Martin Balsam, John Feidler, Lee J Cobb, E.G Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley Sr, George Voskovec, Robert Webber