"Twelve Angry Men" is a film that many consider one of the greatest films of all time and was Oscar nominated for best picture, director and writing. This was also Director Sidney Lumet's first feature film, a fact which strikes me as astounding, given the complexity involved. To make such a powerful movie the first time out is miraculous. The idea of keeping an audience's attention on twelve men stuck in a room together talking is also a daunting task, (which was helped by some truly fine acting talent.) Lumet's technique is subtle and very effective, lowering the camera in each act and varying the lighting, to increase the sense of claustrophobia.
This is as good an example of a top notch ensemble cast as exists anywhere, although the magnetism of Henry Fonda, played against Lee J. Cobb's bitter stubbornness is the centerpiece that everyone gathers around. That being said, every juror in the room is notable in one respect or another and each man believes he is doing the right thing by his own reasoning. Each man has his own prejudices and quirks, and it's easy to see why at first glance they would all assume a guilty verdict.
While the film possibly presents a victory of the legal system, the implication is a lot less uplifting. If Henry Fonda's Juror #8 hadn't been in the room with his amazingly stubborn refusal to cave in when every other person in the room believed he was way off base, then what would have happened? Is it reasonable to expect that every jury have a Henry Fonda? I don't think so. On the other hand we can't assume that every jury will have a Juror #3, intent on a guilty verdict no matter what the facts may be. The reality is likely somewhere in between, and better represented by the jurors between the two polar opposites. Yet, if we look at the in between in this film we would definitely reach an almost instant guilty verdict.
Most of us have known people like each of the jurors and their traits are diverse enough that anyone could even find parts of themselves in each of them.
Juror #1, who tries hard to be fair, but needs to feel a sense of his own authority, which is easily threatened. Juror #2, timid and completely insecure in his own opinion. He instinctively goes along with the group.
Juror #3, so bitter, that he can't even see his own agenda, skilled at deflection and denial, so steeped in masking his real issues that he would send a man to death to take out his anger at his own son.
Juror #4, unemotional but fair, accepting only what he perceives as fact.
Juror #5, insecure and defensive about his own upbringing, and the closet thing to a "peer" the accused kid has. He's mostly reasonable, and makes up his own mind.
Juror #6, blue collar, somewhat cynical about anyone's innocence, but not maliciously so.
Juror #7, supremely self interested, seeing jury duty as an inconvenience keeping him from a ball game. Even knowing they're discussing a boy's life doesn't change his lack of concern.
Juror #8, the architect, determined that an innocent boy won't go to the chair without a thorough examination of every area with room for doubt. Self confident and stubborn, unfazed by the prospect of being the only dissenter.
Juror #9, the elderly man, pays close attention to detail, genuinely interested in doing the right thing.
Juror #10, his most prominent feature is the way his racism affects his every opinion about the case.
Juror #11, wants to follow the system properly, appreciating it differently than the others by virtue of coming from another country which didn't offer the freedoms and safeties he finds in the American legal system. Juror #12, similar to #7 in his extreme self interest. While he's a bit more polished than #7, he would rather talk about advertising than deliberate the points of the case.
These characters are all exaggerations, designed to highlight the different viewpoints that can be present in such a gathering. Each presents a piece of the group dynamic. One shared characteristic of most of them is that they are content to follow another's lead, whether Juror #8 of Juror #3. In this case Juror #8, knew how to present himself and presented his doubts better than #3 presented his certainty. No one wanted to side with Juror #8 against the other 11 jurors. Only Juror #9, the old man, who was unconcerned with social standing was willing to make that leap, and even he only did so out of respect for Juror #8's guts in standing alone.
Despite their knowledge that they were dealing with a young man's life, they were still concerned with the group's approval. Juror #8 wisely worked with the group dynamic to allow each Juror to change his mind in a way that felt acceptable to him. It's telling that the "outsiders" came around to his viewpoint first, the elderly Juror #9, the "raised in the slums #5, and the immigrant #11. Once there was a respectable number of "Not Guilty" votes, Juror #2 felt comfortable switching his vote, being himself an outsider, but also easily intimidated. Juror #6, the "average" guy now has the ability to entertain the facts, without a huge majority leaning either way, and considering the doubts presented changes his vote. With the numbers even at that point, and unable to deny the momentum of going from one Not guilty vote to six, the self interested are the next to change votes, partly to get what they see as the inevitable process over with. This leaves the three Jurors requiring extra persuasion. Juror #10, is persuaded by the room's unanimous rejection of his racist reasoning, which is only possible on the level that it occurs due to the growing majority. Juror #4, is all about the facts, and considers himself the smartest man in the room, only by appealing to knowledge about eyeglasses that only he himself has is he able to be swayed. This leaves only Juror #3, who is "peer pressured" into coming to grips with his own baggage. Certainly the facts and lack of them, is important, but as shown, the facts themselves would not have changed the Guilty verdict to Not Guilty.
In my opinion, this is the biggest danger of the jury system, the fact that group dynamics, can overpower the facts. I think that most jurors, have a suspicion that a man who is on trial is not on trial for no reason. We trust authority figures more than the average citizen. A policeman's testimony on the stand carries more weight than that of the man he arrested. The jurors here come to recognize Juror #8 as an authority figure, giving in to his determination and self confidence. While it's fortunate that he's working to give the accused a chance, making him just a little dumber and less charismatic, and making Juror #8 a touch more stable and objective would have changed the whole equation.
"12 Angry Men" is just a movie, but the issues it raises are as relevant now as they were then. Our jury system has not changed.Many people view the courts as a place where people, win by hiring the better lawyer. Do we really observe "innocent until proven guilty." to the point of "beyond a reasonable doubt?" I would speculate that the answer is "sometimes." I'm sure that some juries are as diligent as they can possibly be, but I'm just as sure that some are not. Some would answer such an assertion with the challenge to stop complaining if you don't have a better solution, but I don't accept that. The point of this movie to me is to ask some difficult questions, and take a look at where what we have can go wrong. It's wonderful that this movie is shown to schoolchildren to expose them to the danger's inherent in our system. This is a film I think we can all benefit from watching now and then, because someone's life or liberty could be at stake, and while we can't help the fact that the system isn't perfect, we can at least take it seriously enough to try to be aware of where it fails.
Fittingly I think, we don't know any more than the jurors do if the accused kid killed his father. Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. That's what Juror #8's battle is really about, the fact that they can't know that. They are presented evidence that makes it appear that he did, and the Jury's response is to accept the evidence, arriving at the conclusion that he must have done it, and it needs to be proven that he didn't, the opposite of the law's requirement, yet a natural reaction, drawing guilt from the accusation. To shift the burden of proof to the accuser, is a monumental undertaking which is only done by him accepting that their understanding in reversed and proving to them "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the case has a lot of holes in it. He points out this fact many times, but none of them understand it until the "proof" is scrutinized. Rather than assume innocence, they assume guilt, and Juror #8 is forced to examine the case through this standard rather than the one prescribed by law.While Henry Fonda, might make it look like a walk in the park, I fear this task would be too much for most of us.
Sidney Lumet has said that the screenwriter Reginald Rose, believed that people were essentially good, a fact which Lumet himself doesn't agree with, but all the same, he loved the story. Personally, I can see the story serving both points of view. We can take it totally at face value and point to it as an example of the system working, but the difficulty and uncertainty in reaching this point suggest that next time it likely won't. If we had 12 men itching like Juror #7 to see a ball game, this would have been a much different and much shorter movie. It's also notable, and a sign of the times, that the boys jury of "peers" was twelve white men who, except for Juror #5, had nothing in common with the accused at all. The problems the jury faces however are anything but outdated, as "beyond a reasonable doubt" and "innocent until proven guilty" are principles that our system still wrestles with today, and the stakes are exactly the same.
Justice prevails here perhaps, but I don't see any choice but to view it as anecdotal evidence. A brilliant film, which I think serves us better as a warning to how easy it is for the system to fail, than as a shining example of how well it works.
It's understandable that the idea of being tangled in the American court system is a less than comforting thought. The jury system is ideally designed to have your fate decided by your peers. Peers is a relative term though, meaning people chosen by random selection of any possible background, personalities, and outlooks. The idea of a jury systemoffers the potential for justice, but a terrifying possibility for justice being diverted.