Published in the North Central Chronicle on Feb. 22, 2008, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”
I was about 7 years old when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. I’ve seen the highlights—the slow-speed chase, O.J. struggling with the glove—but I don’t remember the sensational media coverage or the racial debates regarding the verdict. I can only assume the jury felt tremendous pressure to get it right; a guilty verdict would have sent Simpson to death row, while ruling him not guilty would set him free.
The question of guilty versus innocent and right versus wrong has captivated rational minds for centuries. In our justice system, the final judgment of wrongdoers is laid on the conscience and common sense of their peers. But when fallible and differing human beings must unite under one clear, unanimous decision, there is bound to be conflict. And conflict is exactly what happens in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957).
A young ruffian has been accused of premeditated murder. The judge sends the jury into deliberation of what appears to be an open-and-shut case. The twelve jurors file into a cramped back room to debate the case, but 11 of them have already assumed the defendant’s guilt. The twelfth one, however, is not so sure. He, juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) is the only one who leaves room for reasonable doubt.
So they are forced to endure the stifling heat and convince Juror Number 8 to change his vote. As the tension builds with the humidity, the jurors sweat the details of the case and each man’s faults and prejudices surface. One man sees the defendant as a stereotypical child of the slums and makes his judgments accordingly. Another cares more about making it to a baseball game that night than deciding the fate of a man.
We learn of the case piece by piece through the jury’s deliberation, and slowly we see our own perceptions of the defendant’s alleged crime, and of the jurors themselves, change. Juror Number 8 is meant to be the hero of the film, but he represents more; he is willing to stand up for an unpopular belief amidst heavy and vocal opposition, and his voice of reason and empathy starts to convince other jurors to take change their vote. But I could see a part of myself in each one of the jurors; the reasonable, the indifferent, the stubborn, and the intolerant.
12 Angry Men is similar to Rear Window in that all but about three minutes of the film takes place in one room, creating a heightened sense of claustrophobia for the viewer and for the jurors. In a pressure-filled situation like that, the worst in a person spills out, resulting in ad hominem attacks and irrational behavior. It’s like The Real World, except well-made.
This film should not have worked. Watching twelve men sit in a room and just talk for an hour and a half does not sound very fun, but the actors inhabit their characters and make us believe we’re in that stuffy room with them. We are drawn into solving the murder mystery with the jurors, and we soon start to make our own conclusions, however unsubstantiated or unfair they are.
12 Angry Men succeeds were a good dramatic film should: it entertains us, with colorful characters waging a war of words in a stress-filled environment; and it also makes us think, about the concept of right and wrong and about our own prejudices. With a one-two punch like that, 12 Angry Men deserves no less than top billing on your Netflix queue.