Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Reginald Rose
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden
The justice system in this country often receives criticism for how unjust it can be, and this 1957 classic displays that perfectly as twelve men enter a room to decide the guilt of a young man. It looks into the psyche of a jury member and their frivolous priorities compared to the decision that could result in the execution of another person.
In a high-profile case in 1950s New York, 12 men sit on a jury of a case centered on an 18-year-old on trial for murdering his father. What seems like an open-and-shut case for eleven of the jurors gets challenged by juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) as he asks for more deliberation from the group. A decision met with much anger and agitation, which sheds a light on each of these men.
Perfection in filmmaking may be subjective but through my eyes, 12 Angry Men hits that criteria in every facet of its execution. Serving as Sidney Lumet’s feature debut, this film shows the rise of an excellent filmmaker. The sheer directorial control he employs to create tension and raise the unrelenting agitation from the characters shows from the very beginning that Lumet would become a legend. This ranks among the best debut features by any director along with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. It’s incredible to see that he goes on to make films like Network and Dog Day Afternoon, but his best film, at least in my eyes, will always be his first feature.
This film’s magic lies in the universal and timeless conversations held by the characters. Anyone can be inputted into this story because the film purposely constructs itself in that way. None of the characters have a name made clear to the audience. Their most distinguishable features come from their profession and the number juror they were assigned. The story carries on forever, as I could be one of the jurors and so can anyone reading this review. The audience gets sucked into this conversation and almost becomes its own juror during the deliberations. Besides it being in black-and-white, the film does not truly age itself, due to how contained the setting became. Besides the initial scene in the courtroom and the final one, the entirety of the story stays confined to the room where they discuss the verdict. Sidney Lumet uses this environment to make it incredibly strenuous for the characters within it. You can feel the sweat in the room and how the tempers of the characters flare as the film goes on. The framing by Lumet contributes to that with the close-ups on the characters to capture the sheer frustration they have from the conversations.
Each character has their own motivations and prejudices heading into the jury meeting and this story forces them to confront their rationale. One character believes the defendant committed the murder because of his ethnicity. Another believes in the evidence the prosecution provided, while another wants to hurry it along because they do not want to miss the Yankees game. All very different ideas and motivations with some believing the information provided and others having no clue about the importance of their decision. Each character represents a figure in America and as much as we want to believe that we would choose to be on the right side of the situation, that notion may be wishful thinking. The sheer ease that these characters jump on board with a guilty plea show a harmful groupthink idea where individuals don’t think for themselves and go with the popular decision. With giving any verdict, there must be a unanimous decision and some of the jurors are willing to simply go with who has more votes just to go home. We have not advanced as much as we want to believe in society. This harmful thinking existed in the 1950s just as it does today, which contributes to why this film holds up incredibly well.
Henry Fonda’s Juror number 8 provides the initial questioning that pushes against the groupthink of the characters. He spends almost the entirety of the film getting yelled at by the other jurors to agree with charging the guy on trial with a guilty verdict. He spends the rest of the film listening to each of their arguments and rationale only to push against them in order to see how strong their convictions truly are. It exposes who these men have always been and how they bring their own baggage into making a decision that could result in an execution.
While Juror number 8 asks the piercing question, most of the investigative process that happens in the film does not really happen when on a jury. Anyone who has ever participated in a jury will know that what is portrayed in this film is not the proper procedure, but the message endures. Asking questions does not represent dissent, but merely ensuring the correct decision arrived through meaningful discussion. This country believes in the notion of defendants being “innocent until proven guilty,” but rarely do we enter every situation in this manner. In the court of public opinion, it will certainly not be the case, but it should in the justice system. It’s the ideal Henry Fonda’s Juror number 8 represents when all of the jurors walked in and wanted to vote the defendant guilty, a decision that would lead to the death penalty. Human life is worth at least a discussion.
By the end of the film, the clarity of the innocence or guilt of the defendant remains muddled but the discussion prevails and shows the lasting message and brilliance of this film. These types of decisions provide no easy answers and jury members may not know the whole truth when making a decision that will drastically impact the lives of others. Every American has the right to a jury of their peers, and it should be the obligation of a jury to have the discussion, consider the facts, and make the decision. Rendering a verdict that might end someone’s life will never be easy, but that’s why they call it a duty.