12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men

I have now seen the classic 12 Angry Men all the way through three or four times, and have watched bits and pieces of it (on YouTube and such) many additional times. I’d put it in my top 25 favorite movies of all time. Probably not top 10, but pretty close.

It’s the story of a jury deliberation. About 98% of the movie (all but two to three minutes at the beginning and even less at the end) takes place in one room. That may not sound like a particularly exciting movie, but it’s surprisingly intense. It’s infrequent that a movie holds my attention from start to finish the way this one did. It feels like every line of dialogue matters, like every nuance of a character’s tone of voice or facial expression is worth paying attention to.

If a movie can be that compelling when it consists of virtually nothing beyond a bunch of people in a room talking, you know the acting has to be exceptional. For that matter the writing and the directing and such have to be solid, but you especially need actors who can convey all those aforementioned nuances.

And 12 Angry Men certainly has that. Henry Fonda is the sole really big name, with the others (including a young Jack Klugman) being mostly the type who would be classified more as character actors than stars, but the performances are consistently excellent. There are maybe two or three places in the entire movie where something rings just a little false to me, but no more than that.

Is there some stereotyping or caricaturing? I’d say a modest amount—about the minimum amount you could expect given that there are twelve characters in that room, and so each actor can only have a limited amount of lines and screen time to inform you about their character’s personality, background, motivations, values, etc. Given those constraints, it’s remarkable how well you get to know every one of the jurors as an individual. Sitting here right now, I’m confident I could list all twelve jurors and tell a decent amount about each one.

It’s also impressive that the film is as gripping as it is given that you can take an educated guess from very early in the story how it’s going to turn out. But it’s the kind of movie where even if you’re pretty sure from a few minutes into it the destination to which it’s headed, you still very much want to know how it gets there, and whether there might be any details of that destination that you didn’t anticipate.

Given the very limited physical space needed, this strikes me as something that could readily be performed as a play. About the only thing that would be a little tricky to recreate on a live stage is that there’s a photograph that the audience needs to be able to see clearly that the camera comes in on in a close up. And, as I read after seeing the movie, 12 Angry Men has indeed also been performed as a play. In fact, it started as a “teleplay”—which is kind of in between a play and a TV movie—and then became a regular play even before it was made into a movie.

To tell more about the story, or to write in more detail about my favorite scenes, would risk giving too much away, but more importantly any description I offer isn’t going to sound anywhere near as interesting as the movie actually is. This is a film you have to see, and to really focus on, not watch while you’re texting or multitasking. It rewards such attention.

In reading about this movie after the fact, I found out that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cites 12 Angry Men as a key inspiration to her in pursuing law as a career. What surprised me were her remarks that in spite of loving the movie, she also has used it as an example of precisely what you are not allowed to do as a jury, stating that if these jury deliberations in the movie were known by a judge, it would be grounds for a no-brainer mistrial.

Specifically, at least as I understand what she said, juries aren’t supposed to speculate about matters that neither side brought up during the trial. For example, in the movie the jurors discuss whether one could infer from certain things a witness said and did that she wore glasses, even though she didn’t have them on when she was on the stand. But apparently the rule is that since neither the defense nor the prosecution claimed during the trial that she wore glasses or that she didn’t wear glasses, the jury is not allowed to discuss and speculate about the matter.

I can sort of see the reasoning for this. I mean, I would imagine the idea is that whatever conclusion you reach in the jury room about such a possibility will be something that the side it disadvantages did not have an opportunity to address and refute. So really you should limit your discussion to only matters that were fully hashed out, or at least that both sides had an opportunity to address even if one side decided to leave unchallenged what the other side claimed.

But still, that just doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, especially in the context of a criminal case, where you’re talking about “reasonable doubt.”

Let’s say you’re on a jury and you find the prosecutor’s account of what allegedly happened insufficiently convincing. How are you supposed to articulate and defend why you think it’s unconvincing? Wouldn’t the most obvious way be to give some plausible alternative account of how things possibly went down? Wouldn’t it be to say, “Here’s another explanation for all the evidence that was presented that exonerates the accused, and it’s likely enough that I have a reasonable doubt about what the prosecution is claiming”? Can’t you as a juror reasonably doubt something on grounds other than what the defense happened to explicitly claim? Heck isn’t that kind of “speculation” exactly what a jury should be discussing to determine if there is reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty?

Evidently not, if I’m understanding the Justice correctly. If that’s true, then that strikes me as a flaw in the system.

Anyway, 12 Angry Men is terrific. It was nominated (though it didn’t win) for the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (Sidney Lumet), but it’s hard to believe it didn’t get any wins or even nominations for its acting, which is what stands out the most to me. Were there really multiple people more deserving for Best Supporting Actor that year than Lee J. Cobb? I mean, come on. His emotional breakdown scene alone should have been enough to win it for him, or at least come damn close. And if somehow Cobb is overlooked, you could make a case for several others from the movie, including at least E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, and Jack Klugman, and maybe even Fonda for Best Actor. The acting in this movie is simply stellar.

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