When I’m not analyzing the subtext of the latest pop culture offerings, on most days I get to interact with people from all walks of life, dealing with all sorts of situations. I meet people with children who in one way or another face a life of hardship, and I sometimes get lost in thought about the unfairness of it all. Seeing babies in a hospital nursery, some born into this world with serious medical adversities on day one, I start thinking about the things most people take for granted for which those children may never experience, and all because somehow someway they lost a random chance lottery game with nature. Things as simple as walking, living to be a teenager, having a first kiss, going to prom, or ultimately being able to live as a self-sufficient individual in control of their own destiny may be beyond their capabilities.
It’s not fair, and the longer I think about it the angrier I get.
Once in a late-night, drunken conversation I told a girlfriend about these feelings, and while she agreed the overall situations were tragic, she thought my perspective was flawed. For her, to view these lives as being “broken” in some way is to assign a value which considers them less than normal, when the love and relationships these individuals bring to the world is different but just as significant as any other. Getting angry over what has been possibly lost is to discount the flesh and blood reality of the present. I’m still not sure I totally agree with her, but the entire conversation made me realize how in any given situation, even the ones we think are cut and dry, our views are filtered through a lens of emotional baggage which can either be angry at an imperfect world in which bad things can happen, or can find hope in the worst of circumstances.
Sydney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is considered by many to be one of the best films ever made, parodied endlessly as the definitive representation of pop culture depictions of the jury system, and used in many schools to teach principles as they relate to government, the application of law, and principles of American justice. The action of the 1957 film, adapted from a teleplay written by Reginald Rose, occurs in the tension-filled conversations which happen mostly in one room; a jury room where the life of a young boy accused of murdering his father hangs in the balance. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) stands alone in questioning the boy’s guilt, and slowly, methodically begins swaying the jury with arguments which appeal to reason, compassion, and common sense.
In the decades since the film was released, there have been arguments over whether the jury’s ultimate decision was the right one, and the true theme of the story. Is it a tale about how an individual can make a difference in the world? Is it a story about the flawed ways we try to achieve fairness? Both are legitimate ways to look at the movie, but watching it again this weekend what struck me about 12 Angry Men is how it’s really a story of perspectives, and the ways those perspectives color reason.
But, most of all, I found the timeless quality of the movie funny in how the different perspectives in the film still describes the views of huge swaths of the electorate here in 2018.
If one analyzes the film in the abstract, and divorces it from the murder case and all the legalese, just looking at the archetypes of the characters, some familiar patterns occur.
The Conservative Bloc
These three characters are the last three to hold out against an acquittal, and the strongest voices in favor of guilt throughout the story. Their overall personality traits also accurately describe a lot of Trump voters in the 21st century.
- Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb): His views on the guilt of the boy are irrationally filtered through his resentments. He resents having a son who doesn’t acknowledge the life he’s worked hard to provide, he resents a world where children don’t call their father “sir” anymore, and he resents what those things say about him as a man. And Juror #3 clings to those resentments and his belief in the boy’s guilt no matter how illogical it becomes. I’ve written a lot about conservatives seeing themselves as victims and how it mirrors trends in popular culture. There is a significant portion of men, especially older white men, who are frustrated about what they don’t have and what others might get, and who see their equalized status within society as a slight against their worth as a person.
- Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall): A great detail of characterization occurs early in the film when Juror #3 attempts to introduce himself to #4 by pulling out his business card and describing his messenger service. Juror #4, who states he works as a broker, can not even exhibit the social grace to take the card. It’s this total lack of empathy and inability to examine the evidence with intellectual curiosity which makes Juror #4 one of the most strident voices for guilt. It reminded me of a certain form of country club conservatism, mostly white, suburban Republican voters, who cannot think beyond dollars and cents, and are willing to ally themselves with bigots and resentful idiots in order to get what they want as a means to an end.
- Juror #10 (Ed Begley): A bigot who bases his vote on what he believes “those people” are like, which he states is being “born liars.” The character’s bias is apparent throughout the story and colors almost every comment he makes. It’s also apparent Juror #10 is not as smart as he thinks he is.
Juror #10: Bright? He's a common ignorant slob. He don't even speak good English.
Juror #11: He doesn't even speak good English.
I don’t know how many people I know who spend an inordinate amount of their time whining about something, whether it be their taxes, or the state of public schools, or Trump. And invariably a significant chunk of those people can’t be bothered to get off their ass and do something about it. Ironically, I actually know people who refuse to register to vote believing they’ll avoid jury duty.
- Juror #7 (Jack Warden): The desire to leave for the baseball game is what defines this character. And one of the most memorable moments in the film comes when he changes his vote to not guilty, since he does what is arguably the right thing for the wrong reasons, disgusting Juror #11. But beyond just the desire to get out of there and head to the Bronx for a Yankees game, the indifference to the case is one which Juror #7, a cynical sounding salesman of marmalade, is ready to take the easy route at every turn. His demeanor throughout most of the deliberations is the sort of mocking attitude which goes: “Fuck ‘em. He’s got it coming.”
- Juror #12 (Robert Webber): The most significant aspect of Juror #12 is he likes to hear himself talk, believes his stories are the most interesting nuggets of small-talk ever conceived, and annoys everyone around him with it. He’s playing tic-tac-toe, giving anecdotes about his advertising agency, and generally being a distraction. Juror #12 is also one of the most weak-willed throughout the deliberations, and easily cowed in one direction or the other. He is notable for being the only juror to go back to a guilty verdict after changing to not guilty, since he was on the receiving end of being berated by Juror #3.
The Ones In The Middle
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how the side characters represent average, decent people who at least at first go along with something they don’t completely understand, even when the end result might be the death of an innocent man. They’re not willing to stick their necks out until Juror #8 goes first and gives them a place to stand.
Also of note is how often these people tell each other not to be offended by offensive remarks. Bigoted language, discussions about people from “slums,” and personal insults are brushed off by calls for civility—not of the assholes to become civil, but of the offended to be civil in responding to the assholes—and saying something like: “Come on, fella. He didn’t mean you. Don’t be so sensitive.”
- Juror #1 (Martin Balsam): The jury foreman who tries to keep order as things become more and more tense. The only information we’re given about him is he’s a high-school football coach, and beyond keeping some semblance of order Juror #1 never really voices an opinion about the evidence. In fact, the character fades into the background as the events progress.
- Juror #2 (John Fielder): When asked why he voted guilty, Juror #2 cannot explain it beyond saying he just “felt” the boy was guilty.
- Juror #5 (Jack Klugman): The character is from the same “slum” as the defendant, and endures the bigotry of Juror #10 until eventually he can’t take it anymore. When at first they go around the table trying to explain why they think the boy is guilty to Juror #8, he passes and acts ashamed to be in the position.
- Juror #6 (Edward Binns): A good-natured, blue collar worker, who when he is first asked about the defendant’s guilt mentions an element not necessary for conviction: motive. He defers to authority, saying: “I’m just a workin' man. My boss does all the supposin'.” Juror #6 threatens to “lay out” Juror #3 for talking down to Juror #9, saying a guy who “talks like that to an old man really oughta get stepped on.”
- Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney): The first juror to switch and join Juror #8 in voting not guilty, and also becomes #8’s best ally during the deliberations. Juror #9, who later identifies himself by the name “McCardle,” is an elderly man whose insight and ability to empathize becomes crucial as the deliberations go on.
- Juror #11 (George Voskovec): A naturalized immigrant who voices patriotism and faith in the American system of justice throughout the story. He chastises the bad manners and bigotry of the other jurors at different points.
Juror #9: [motions to Juror #8] This gentleman has been standing alone against us. Now, he doesn't say that the boy is not guilty; he just isn't sure. Well, it's not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others, so he gambled for support, and I gave it to him. I respect his motives. The boy is probably guilty, but I want to hear more. Right now the vote is 10 to 2 ...
[Juror #7 gets up and heads to the bathroom]
Juror #9: Now I'm talking here! You have no right to leave this room!
Juror #8: [calmly stopping him] He can't hear you, and he never will. Let's sit down.
The Rogue Juror
Juror #8: Suppose we're wrong.
It’s notable to point out that Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 never claims the defendant is innocent. He just thinks it’s possible he didn’t do it, and has his doubts about what on the surface is an airtight case. Little by little and piece by piece the flaws come out and begin to turn the tide. Although, if Sean Hannity was on this jury or if Fox News was covering the case, I doubt those flaws would even matter to them or their viewers.
Being in a position of ignorance (i.e., “I don’t know”) is never an advantageous one in politics, especially in a world of soundbites and talking points. But the wisdom of Juror #8 comes from acknowledging his limitations and the limitations of the jury in discussing the matter. He just wants to stay there and talk about it before throwing the defendant in the electric chair. And this is apropros of how we in the here and now are deluged with information but don’t really talk things out. We don’t discuss tax policy, social security, or even health care on a nuts and bolts basis anymore. The media discusses the process of trying to make it work or not work, the winners and losers of the media cycle in that process, and the people are left largely ignorant of what it all means, just as those jurors mentioned above don’t really understand the ins and outs of what things mean when they’re making a decision.
The most tragic bit about democracy and group dynamics is that it’s always much easier to stand in front of a group and be strong and wrong, than be compassionate and right.
Some tidbits and trivia about the film:
- The movie was initially not a success: This is the only film in which Henry Fonda served as a producer, is considered one of the most important movies in the history of the medium, and it barely made back it’s budget when released. While it has always been critically lauded, competition from films in color is thought to have seriously hampered its ability to draw in audiences.
- Technical detail: Sydney Lumet and his director of photography, Boris Kaufman, purposely framed the action to progressively increase the tension, and make the viewer feel things are becoming more claustrophobic as the story goes on. At the beginning of the film, the cameras are all positioned above eye level and mounted with wide-angle lenses to give the appearance of greater distance between the subjects. As the film continues, the cameras slip down to eye level. By the end of the film, nearly all of it is shot below eye level, in close-up and with telephoto lenses to increase the encroaching sense of the walls closing in. In the film's last shot, Lumet claims he used a wide-angle lens "to let us finally breathe."
From a review of the film by Roger Ebert:
The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. Lumet uses closeups rarely, but effectively: One man in particular--Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney, the oldest man on the jury)--is often seen in full-frame, because he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.
“It sold me that I was on the right path … This movie continued to ring the chords within me.”
- Jury Misconduct: One thing Justice Sotomayor has pointed out about the film is she used to tell juries NOT to behave like the one in 12 Angry Men. If one goes by the strict letter of the law, technically the trial should have ended in a mistrial, since Juror #8 arguably commits juror misconduct when he introduces new evidence (i.e., the second knife), conducts his own investigation in the boy’s neighborhood, and leads the jury in experiments based on speculation instead of facts which were introduced at trial (e.g., the jury guesses how long it takes an elevated train to go past a given point, or whether the woman who claimed to have seen the murder across the tracks was or wasn’t nearsighted, etc.). Although, if the story was being written today, Juror #8 wouldn’t need to go to the neighborhood or buy stuff at pawn shops to find the second knife. He could have just searched eBay to see how ubiquitous it was.