Perfect movies don’t exist. Or if they do, they tend to be perfect only to myself and no one else. But there are some movies that come so close to perfection that we might as well call it a draw.
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is one of those movies. Made in 1957 it is as relevant and salient as when it was first released. Of all the nooks and crannies of the so-called great American justice system, the notion of reasonable doubt has proven to be the most difficult for Americans to grapple with and accept.
The halls of cinema are littered with courtroom dramas. But rare are the ones that deal with the jury deliberation of a case. Perhaps, it is because most filmmakers do not consider the situation sexy or dramatically interesting. After all, there is no explosion in a jury scene or shoot outs, just people trying to make themselves understood.
We never know the names of the jurors, though at the end we learn the names of two of them. The names are not important and it is a credit to Lumet, the script by Reginald Rose, and the camera work by Boris Kaufman that we are never confused with who is who. It would be easy for any filmmaker to get lost in a sea of twelve faces.
Viewing it through the eyes of the 21st century though, it wasn’t the legal or dramatic premise that stood out to me. I must admit that over the years, indeed even the past few months, my faith in the very idea of what America calls justice has begun to wane. The startling notion of 12 Angry Men is the audacity to care so much about the dignity and value of human life.
It becomes clear that the legalese is merely set dressing early on. Juror#1 (Martin Balsam) calls for a vote to see where the jury stands. The vote is 11-1 for guilty. One of the men, Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) asks the lone hold-out Henry Fonda’s Juror#8 if he thinks the kid is guilty. “I don’t know.”
A few moments later Fonda’s Juror will admit “It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.” But just because Juror #8 doesn’t think the accused is guilty, he also confesses that he doesn’t think he is not guilty either. Fonda is a striking presence but what makes his Juror #8 so striking is not just Fonda’s ability to project a moral resolve, but also Rose’s script allowing us to see a man aware of his uncertainty.
So many movies have characters who seemingly have no jobs, or whose job plays no part of who they are. Rose’s script goes out of its way to give you a glimpse of the type of personality each juror possesses by allowing us to know what they do outside the courtroom. We don’t know what every character does for a living but if we don’t know their profession, we do learn something about their background.
It’s hard enough to paint one complex emotional and psychologically complex character. But Rose and Lumet give us twelve individual and unique men all with their prejudices and idiosyncrasies. Remarkably even though a few are similar to each other they are drawn stark enough that we can easily recognize the differences.
I must admit that over the past few months I have been questioning the very notion of what “justice” even means in America. Some people conflate consequences with justice, while others labor under the notion that punishment is the answer. Mercy and deliberation rarely enter into it, even though the very idea is supposedly baked into the system, but it’s not.
12 Angry Men is not a documentary and considering the staggering lack of justice in the modern justice system it could be argued the film is downright a fairy tale. That twelve men would argue so much over a young boy, especially a boy who isn’t white, seems dubious considering what we know of our society. But that’s the point. Human life, all human life, has value.
Lumet builds tension with his actors and Kaufman’s camera. He switches the lens and lowers the level of the camera as the movie progresses. It’s not that Lumet’s style is so subtle but that it is so effective and almost bewitching.
I have seen 12 Angry Men countless times and each time I make a vow to myself to try and spot the strings. Each time I fail miserably. The strings are there but Lumet, along with Kaufman, is so nimble that we find ourselves ignoring them or simply not caring.
Take the scene where Begley’s Juror begins to rant about people in the slums. Kaufman’s camera slowly begins to push in on Juror # 5 (Jack Klugman). Klugman is picking his nails, staring at his fingers intently, anxious as the camera pushes in, and Kenyon Hopkins’s haunting score gently plays underneath it all. First-time viewers have an idea of what is about to happen and repeat viewers are reminded of what is about to happen.
Even then I am surprised by how not big Klugman’s explosion is. He is restrained to the point that his entire body is shaking with indignation. Klugman’s juror is angry sure but he is also deeply hurt and a little ashamed that he lost his cool.
I mention this scene to demonstrate the highwire act of Lumet’s style. Sidney Lumet has made countless films, and for any other director, 12 Angry Men would be a bar they would be measured by all their life. Not only is the film Lumet’s directorial debut but it is also by far not the only great movie Lumet has ever made.
Lumet is what I would call, an invisible director. In other words, despite the average viewer noticing the camera move, it does not register to them on a conscious level or if it does, it does not distract or break the moment in a way that has them talking about it after the movie is over. It is in synthesis with everything else going on at the moment that reveals itself on repeated viewings.
On the surface, 12 Angry Men is a fundamentally un-cinematic idea. Twelve men doing nothing but talking about something we the audience have never seen. Heck, we only get a glimpse of the accused, a frightened boy looking morose as the jury files out of the courtroom. “He’s 18.” “Well, that’s old enough.”
Yet, Lumet manages to explore so much with this simple premise. It seethes with a sort of moral clarity while also wrestling with moral and philosophical complexities. Lumet looks at how our past can color our perception of the present while also picking at the scab of masculinity.
Throughout my life, I have known or met every single one of these men a dozen times over. I’ve known Cobb’s bombastic rage-filled man haunted by regret of his actions. Who among us doesn’t know someone like the morally incurious Juror #7 (Jack Warden) who seems to hold no real opinion or principle but is also somehow the loudest guy in the room?
I have also, regrettably, been all of these men at one point or another.
Invariably, though 12 Angry Men is a fairy tale, it is also very much a white fairy tale. It speaks to the white fantasy about the diversity of thought and how all thoughts are valid.
Rose smartly makes all twelve characters flawed but never “the bad guy.” Except there is a “bad guy.” No, it is not Cobb’s Juror #3, but Begley’s Juror # 10.
We talk a lot about how free speech requires a diversity of thought and discussion. But we tend to ignore how some of these ideas have been so thoroughly debunked that to even give them breath is to acknowledge an inconsistency and prejudice in our own rationale.
The moment when Begley’s Juror erupts into a racist tirade hit differently than it normally does this time around. If only because of how the others react-they turn away or leave the table. The dramatic staging of the actors and how Lumet and Kaufman position the camera in the corner of the room so we can see where everyone is in relation to Begley’s character is still as effective and powerful as it ever was. Even the coolest and most rational of them all Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall), a stockbroker, is disgusted. “Listen to me!” “I have. Now sit down and don’t open your mouth again.”
But it’s how everyone turns away, even Cobb’s emotionally compromised Juror #3, that struck me. This is nice and affirms my belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, but that so many white men would object to this one bigot is a fairy tale. Though it helps that it is also the point of 12 Angry Men. We all like to believe that we are fundamentally good people.
While, except for Juror #10, everyone in the film is merely flawed men, they are without a doubt also clearly flawed white men. If we were to remake the movie today, and perhaps diversify the cast it, if done honestly and truthfully, would result in a much different movie—perhaps even a better one.
Though until that time comes, we are left with a masterpiece despite its shortcomings. But is 12 Angry Men a fairy tale? So what if it is? Perhaps it is a necessary tale to remind us that justice means something more than petty revenge or slavery disguised as punishment. Maybe justice, much like ourselves, is more complicated than we assumed.
Image courtesy of United Artists