Movie Madness: “12 Angry Men”

Essays on Film, Movie Madness, writing

*Note* This is the first in a series titled “Movie Madness”, wherein I watch one movie a day and then post the review. Enjoy!


People enjoy group consensus; before I picked this movie, I based my choice on the thought that that many people couldn’t be wrong, which, coincidentally, turns out to the be the whole point of the film.

I knew very little about 12 Angry Men – I knew it was well-known for being an intelligent film about men arguing, which may seem like an oxymoron. Trapped in a meeting room until they reach a verdict, this look into jury deliberation is not only a self-contained, claustrophobic look into the inner workings of the American justice system, but also an intense character study of, well, 12 angry men.

Opening during a brief statement from the judge where he rather monotonously reminds the jury they have a man’s life in their hands, already suggesting the antipathy of the court, he dismisses them to their meeting chamber. The character of the Jurors are established early and quickly in brief flashes, under the guise of normal conversation and costuming: one juror is bespectacled and soft-spoken, another garishly dressed in a flashy suit with no tie, another in out-of-fashion suspenders; one is a broker who ‘never sweats’, the man next to him hasn’t spoken to his son in years, and another is all in white.

They agree upon sitting down to take a vote to see where they stand; all vote guilty, save for one. When the foreman asks for not-guilty, the man in white, alone, raises his hand. Thus we begin.

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Many of the jurors are irate; they believe it is an open-and-shut case. They berate Henry Fonda, the lone dissenter, and try to cajole him into voting guilt; it is ‘the hottest day in the year’, the fan is broken, and one of the jurors has tickets to the ball game that night; they are eager to not necessarily send a man to his death but to get on with their lives outside the trial and, mostly, to get out of that room. Juror #12, an adman, doodles his design for a cereal box on a piece of paper, and plays tic-tac-toe with his neighbor.

Fonda’s juror is fighting an uphill battle, yet one by one he begins to convince the jurors that, while the defendant might neither be guilty or not guilty of the crime, the burden of proof is not infallible, and there is reasonable doubt that the crime may have been committed by someone else: the murder weapon could merely be similar to the one the defendant purchased, the old man living below the apartment who heard the murders and saw the boy flee may be lonely, and imagining that he witnessed more than he did, shuffling towards the hall where he sees someone running down the stairs who may or may not be the defendant, and “it’s a very sad thing, to be nothing”. The other witness, a woman living across from the apartment, sees the murder through her window, but she’s already laid down for bed, and, at the trial, one of the jurors, a perceptive elderly man, notes that she has the same marks on her face as someone who wears eyeglasses and doesn’t want people to know it, so there is no way she could have time to roll over, put her glasses on, and see at that distance who the murderer was.

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With every hole Fonda pokes into the prosecutor’s argument, the less waterproof it seems, until it sinks entirely; the last juror to cave, Juror #3, with the estranged son, dramatically rips up the photograph of him and his son, a boy around the defendant’s age, clearly wracked with guilt and emotion over his role in the condemnation of his own son.

As contentious as the trial is, it is on display just as clearly as the characters themselves. When one thinks of a jury, one thinks that they must be impartial, the perfect vessels of logic and reason, but this is a misconception; people will always be, at the end of the day, people, with our flaws and our prejudices, our personalities, our biases. There is no infallible jury; that is what makes this film so simple, yet so complicated, because the main conflict in the movie is not the actual truth of the murder, but what the jurors consider the truth. We cannot know if we are truly right any more than we can know if we’re absolutely wrong. As the elder juror states, “so you think you were born with a monopoly on the truth?”, he is challenging what we, as everyday people, encounter all the time: subjective truth, the things that we believe are unquestionable.

Even the broker, the juror who says he ‘never sweats’, has a bead trickle down his face when Fonda begins questioning him over memory; he says that in part because the defendant hadn’t remembered the names of the double feature he saw on the night of the murder, he must have done it, but Fonda flips this on him when he asks for the details of a movie he himself saw, revealing that memory is not as reliable as one might think.

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Apart from character analysis, there is also an important note to make about the technical side of the film: the composition. The director, Sidney Lumet, said he crafted a ‘lens plot’ to go along with the narrative: as the film went on, he would change the lens size to a longer focal length, which makes the background appear closer and closer, giving the viewer the sense of enclosing walls, the claustrophobic atmosphere that the jury is mired in.

In addition, Lumet also decided to shoot ‘the first third above eye level’, the second ‘at eye level’, and the last ‘from below eye level’, slowly revealing the ceiling, which appears as if it too is closing in on the jurors. This gives a sense of compression, as if one is slowly being forced downwards from the succession of sinking shots, the truth which is pressing in and down.

Contrarily, the final shot of the movie is a wide shot, which offers a scene of the jurors leaving down the steps of the courthouse, the setting sun reflecting off the gathered rain. There is a sense of relief; the storm has passed, and we can see the men as they disperse into the street, no longer contained by the room, its arguments, and its responsibilities.

The last shot of the room is of what has been left behind: notes, knives, the adman’s doodle, the ripped-up photograph. There is no talk of the truth, but rather how it’s been presented, beaten around by bias, and how each juror perceived it.

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As they all exit the courthouse, the elderly juror introduces himself to Fonda as McCardle, and Fonda’s juror replies that he is Davis, reminding the viewer that, throughout this whole ordeal, the passionate arguments, the heated debate, the reveal of inner character, that none of the jurors, our even ourselves, knew each other’s names, although they are intimately affected by their personalities. The whole point of the film has not been who we identify as, but how our identities apply to our situation, and although the movie itself is black and white, perhaps the truth, reality, is not.

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