What’s interesting about 12 Angry Men is that the men don’t necessarily believe that the boy on trial is innocent, even though the verdict they reach is not guilty. Rather, they just don’t believe him to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt: He very well may be guilty but they can’t logically reach that conclusion with the facts and testimonies present. It’s a very slight but important distinction that is at the core of Sidney Lumet’s dramatic cavalcade of morality and humanism. We can see from his direction and the performances fromhis actors that Lumet has an appreciation for unprejudiced justice, and stridently believes in the goodness of the common man to achieve and protect the procedures of making such justice possible.
The film starts off with 12 men huddled into a dreary conference room at a courthouse. The fans aren’t working, no cool air is cseeping through the windows, and everyone is a bit agitated at their current state of affairs. Each man carries his own unique prejudice and motivation for initially voting guilty: some are bigoted, others emotionally distraught, and one just has to get to a Yankee game. They’re all carefully-crafted vehicles for Lumet to make points about society and humanity’s ills and the need to remedy them. Lumet never preaches or trips over his own shoelaces when making an argument. He is tact and resourceful, showing but never telling, with his message resounding clear and vibrant without interference.
These jurors could have this whole deal done and over with in five minutes if it weren’t for pesky juror 8, played by the astute and righteous Henry Fonda. He doesn’t beg or scream or desperately plead with the other jurors to change their minds. Rather, he just asks them to reconsider their viewpoint, and carefully dissects every piece of evidence available to him to convince the other jurors. When they disagree, it isn’t a battle of who’s right or who’s wrong, but Fonda calmly asks them that he wants to hear their argument.
Through Fonda, Lumet depicts his idealized version of a true, good man, a rational, friendly, intelligent person who respects the value of human life and isn’t swayed by emotions or falsehoods and doesn’t compromise because he is tired or lazy or hasn’t had anything to eat in the past couple of hours. He’s a character whose moral compass is as unflinching as Atticus Finch’s. The difference though is that Finch was presenting an argument, while juror 8 is analyzing one. Juror 8 doesn’t have a cause or a client or passion or a plea he’s fighting for, except that he just wants to make sure him and the 11 others achieve true justice, whether they determine the defendant guilty or not.
On top of its bold and passionate moral themes, 12 Angry Men is also relentlessly entertaining. When the men are discussing the knife that was used as the murder weapon, juror 8 takes a similar knife from his own pocket and stabs it into the table, literally hooking us in for the next hour. The next two most memorable scenes are when one of the jurors, an older middle-aged, argues why he think the man is guilty and reveals some nasty racial and social prejudice behind his reasoning. In fact, it’s the only reason he thinks the defendant is guilty, because he comes of a different background than himself. The brilliant thing Lumet and writer Reginald Rose do here is that they don’t reveal what specific race or group this juror is so biased against, it’s just “those types” or “those people.” In this instance, Lumet is casting the interrogation light on the audience. Whoever we immediately picture as who we think the racial or social group that the juror is biased against reveals who we are, in fact, biased against.
Lumet touches so much ground in the film that there isn’t necessarily an overarching theme or single moral argument that trumps any other. But if there was one to pick out that speaks best to our current moment (or at least the one that spoke most true to me), its that we shouldn’t let ourselves be consumed by emotion and passion in favor of rationality and intelligence. That we shouldn’t be enticed by sensationalist headlines in the news or by nasty gossip spread among our social circles, that we shouldn’t base our decisions off of gut instinct and our first reactions until carefully dissecting the available facts and evidence before selecting which road we want to walk down. It’s a very difficult thing to do, to make a conscious effort to rational, astute and aware. But Lumet argues that it’s a necessity, and after watching this film, I have to agree.