12 Angry Men (1957)

Directed by Sidney Lumet


12 Angry Men takes place in one room and just about in real time.  The film starts with the end of a trial, and the camera focuses on the defendant, a young man, as the jurors who hold his life in their hands, filter into the jury room.  11 of the jurors think the defendant is guilty of the charge of murder, but one juror (Henry Fonda) is unsure, and because guilty must mean guilty without “reasonable doubt,” this juror votes not guilty.  This is the beginning of the juror deliberation because the vote has to be unanimous one way or the other.

The rest of the story takes place as a court room drama film typically does, with new information coming in as the characters focus on a new piece of circumstantial evidence.  Fonda’s juror slowly convinces more and more jurors to doubt the prosecution’s case, and because he made clear that doubt means not guilty, the vote slowly shifts.

Fonda might as well be a lawyer, and as one of the other jurors points out, he’s doing the lawyer’s job.  That juror argues that they are meant to focus on the case presented to them after Fonda suggests that the court-appointed lawyer for the defendant may not have done an adequate job.  In this case, Fonda is basically pure, wholesome goodness.  This is further illustrated when he leaves the courthouse at the end of the film in a white suit, contrasted with every other character’s more traditional dark suit.

Fonda teaches the other jurors, in essence, how to look at a court case, and everything he says is instructive to the audience as well.  The whole film might as well be a “how to” guide for judging a trial.  Many of the details of the case, the circumstantial evidence, is presented in a way that more recent movies and shows and even podcasts have focused on.

Serial, in particular, took steps to question the evidence in a murder trial by re-enacting moments presented as witness testimony in the same way Fonda re-enacts a witness’ walk from his bedroom to the front door where he allegedly saw the defendant fleeing the crime scene.  That witness claims it took him 15 seconds, but Fonda doubts that, considering he has a noticeable limp.  When he re-enacts the walk, measuring out the same distance, he finds that it takes him about 40 seconds.

His point, to the other jurors, is that they can’t be completely certain that this testimony is truthful.  Perhaps the man is mistaken, and as Serial and other such true crime stories have pointed out, memory is fallible.

By the end, Fonda has convinced everyone, and the last holdout finally changes his vote after it’s clear that his supposedly unbiased opinion is, in fact, incredibly biased towards the young defendant because of his own personal frustrations with his own son, whom he hasn’t spoken to in ten years.

If this film were made today, it might just be a traditional courtroom drama.  The focus is never on whether or not the defendant killed his father but on the rules of the court and the importance of following those rules.  One juror, an immigrant, expresses his unwavering faith in the democratic judicial system in America in the type of monologue that every character seems to get their crack at during the film.

The narrative unfolds as new information is given to us.  We learn what the case against the defendant is but only after we learn that 11 of the 12 jurors consider the kid to be clearly guilty.  Fonda’s juror explains his opinion, saying that being “unsure” is enough for a not guilty vote, and then, before we examine his doubt of the evidence, the other jurors, one by one, explain why they think he is guilty.

This sequence basically sets up most or all of the evidence so that Fonda can break it down.  The kid stabbed his father with a unique looking knife, which a witness knew the kid owned, and which he admitted to owning.  Surely no one else could have such a detailed, ornate knife, but Fonda presents his own copy of the knife and says he bought it only a couple blocks away from where the kid lived.  This moment, surely in some violation of the judicial system, is point number one.  Fonda’s later points are less unconventional.

Much of the evidence, he points out, is circumstantial but presented as concrete.  There is the witness testimony of the elderly neighbor and, more importantly the testimony of another neighbor who claims she saw the boy kill his father through the windows of a passing train.  But then, as Fonda points out, the train was so loud that it would seem to interfere with the downstairs neighbor who allegedly heard yelling followed by the body hitting the ground.  How could he hear when, as they know, the passing train is almost unbearably loud.  At the very least, how could they be sure of what they heard.

The film goes one by one through these pieces of evidence until they find a not guilty verdict, and now I believe that Adnan Sayed (Serial) is guilty.

I definitely learned a lot from this film.  It was incredibly tense and entertaining, because murder investigations typically are.  Every new piece of evidence felt like another level in a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, as we devised a plan to undermine it.  A more modern remake of this film or just a similar story might choose to re-enact the witness testimony onscreen for us, but that would partially defeat the purpose.  It’s never about what really happened, it’s about what you can and can’t be certain about.

We have to go on only what these characters say and what was presented to them.  The film puts you in the jurors’ shoes, making you decide for yourself whether or not he’s guilty.  There may still be people who would think the defendant killed his father, and I was partially expecting the film to pull the rug out from under us and reveal that, even though he was found not guilty, he ultimately did commit the murder.  And maybe he did, but the rules of the courtroom are different.  It’s like a little arena, a gladiator battle of sorts, and that’s what makes courtroom dramas so translatable to movies, like boxing matches or gambling stories.

The last thing I’m trying to figure out is why this was shown through the eyes of the jurors and not the actual trial or presentation of the prosecution’s case.  My feeling is that the story is meant to make you an active character in the case, so that you’re trying to figure out what happened as opposed to sitting back and letting someone else do the world for you.  The jurors also demonstrate the ways someone can be partial to one side or the other, and it forces you to consider your own possible biases.  In this case, the last juror to change his vote likely should have been denied at the juror selection process to a pretty clear bias.

So I don’t know what else to say.  The film is surprisingly gripping (only surprising if you didn’t know how famous this film is), and it’s a joy to watch.  It’s highly instructional as well.

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