12 Angry Men is a 1957 legal drama. It follows a jury, tasked with deciding the fate of an 18-year old boy who allegedly murdered his father. At first, the vote is 11-1 for guilty. But, as the case is dissected, we soon realize that the matter is far more complicated than it seems…
The central message to me was this: exposing the injustice of legal systems, not just in America, but all over the world. It is also an examination of democracy; praising its efficacy or revealing its corruption, depending on how you interpret the movie.
Themes and symbols
The most apparent theme is of justice and the legal system. On one hand, it praises the jury, a representation of democracy, depicting its ability to make an informed decision, and really analyze the case. It celebrates the decision-making power of the people.
On the other hand, one must wonder: What if Jack (the architect) was not present? How blithely the jury would have declared the boy guilty, without remorse or any further examination.
It portrays the selfish indifference of some, who (in the case of Juror #7) just wanted to get to his baseball game. The jury system is flawed, because people are flawed. Democracy is both glorious, and easily corrupted.
Further, we must pause to consider how the defendants background played into this. From the get-go, his lawyer thought him guilty, and did not want the case in the first place. He is practically doomed to a death sentence. This is something that happens far too often.
Worked into this is an examination of prejudice, and the role it plays in our decisions. There is racism (Juror #10) and personal troubles (Juror #3), which play a massive part in the initial reactions of these jurors to the case.
Tying into the examination of prejudice, is an exploration of doubt and assumption, and the power of critical thinking. The jurors are content to assume what is obvious. It takes Juror #8 to look deeper into the case, to consider things from all angles, and to reach a conclusion truly based in fact rather than false assumption.
It is quite a profound inquiry into human nature. Here are represented people from all different backgrounds, united under the American ideal of justice.
As the case evolves, we piece together their backgrounds, coming to understand and know each character intimately. This single room, with twelve men, really is a case study of the entire world.
Over the whole drama hangs an ethical dilemma, raised, but not duly explored: can we sentence a human to death based on probability? And even if he did commit the murder, can we really blame him? How can we, mere humans, be arbiters of life and death? What gives us this right?
The movie, viewed in such depth, seen in multiple layers all brought to focus by a single court case, is truly profound.
The move is loaded with tension. We see order slowly deteriorating, more crude and impulsive natures taking over, and relationships straining.
The various ego’s in the room start to rub together, creating friction and throwing sparks. We watch anger and emnity build, to the point where I thought it might devolve into a Lord of the Flies situation, ending in murder.
The plot is quite slow, delving into details of the case, slowly peeling away its layers, revealing a whole new perspective. My opinion shifted perhaps a dozen times over the course of the film, as new details come into play, and you begin to piece together what really happened. It feels like a terrific detective story, a whole investigation conducted from a single room. Truly spectacular.
At one point (about halfway into the movie), I thought the case exhausted, every little detail examined and re-examined. But still there was more. The whole movie is an incisive investigation, remarkably piercing, revealing the depth and complexity of even a seemingly simple court case.
The movie is slow without being tedious (at all), slow in a way few modern movies are able to replicate.
The choice to film the entire movie in one room is certainly an interesting one. But it worked brilliantly. Without being shown anything, hearing only the different accounts of the jurors, you as a viewer begin to realize what really happened, becoming a juror yourself.
The movie does a marvellous job of drawing you in, through an intimacy with the characters, leading you through a journey of discovery.
The mood is tense and really heavy. You can feel the plot sort of brewing under the surface, in an angry glance, a sudden gesture, or a raving monologue.
The fact that it takes place in an extremely hot day adds to the building tension, as people begin to sweat and become frustrated in the heat. It is also a great metaphor; the heat signifies a brooding storm, both literally and figuratively, which breaks out near the end, again both literally and figuratively. The rain outside may even be seen to reflect the tears spilled by Juror #3.
The shots felt really intimate; frequent close-ups of actors, and showing them doing the most mundane things, such as washing hands or drinking water. This really adds to the sense of place, of actually being present in the room.
The shots are long and unbroken, beginning to stretch out, once again building tension. Short, jarring shots evaporate any sort of anticipation (something modern movie makers do not seem to realize).
This is a great example of a movie where the black and white palette really complements the overall feel, rather than detracting from it. It lends a certain focus to the movie. The visuals do not distract us from the drama and plot, which really are the essence of the whole thing.
Other than the truly thrilling detective work and insights that take place, the characters are perhaps this movie’s greatest asset.
Every single actor was superb. And I mean it. There was not one weak performance. Quite impressive.
Henry Fonda really stood out as this calm, astute and rational figure, who works through everything slowly, with the precision of a surgeon. He casts this strong, appealing, gentle and very American aura, dominating the screen and demanding your attention without being loud or exuberant. He is able to lock you with his gaze, his gentle words, and clear arguments.
Lee J. Cobb takes the prize for second place in my books. His loud tirades and emotionally fraught monologues really are brilliant. The slow realization of his denial, the anger and bitterness that eat him up inside, is tragic and touching.
I could go on and on about each character, but I will refrain, for the sake of my time and yours.
I think I am obligated to choose at least one thing that I didn’t like about the movie. While it was difficult, I will say this: The movie did drag slightly at about the halfway point, when everything we already know is reiterated and reexamined. It was perhaps necessary, but it was a tad clumsily done.
I must once again say this: the careful examination of the case, the peeling away of layer upon layer of false assumption, truly is magnificently done, and quite thrilling.
This really is a brilliant movie, a true classic, which has a surprising amount of intellectual substance. It is the epitome of the drama genre, presented in a manner utterly unlike most modern movies. This is storytelling at its finest, the medium of film in its highest form.