I love my Disney, that much is true. But if you read my Animaniacs blog, you might have noticed my interests lie deeper than one brand. Sometimes I get the inkling to talk about Scooby-Doo or politics or hypnosis, but I set up the parameters by which I abide, so I just try to get clever when I can. Like finding multiple examples of hypnosis in Disney shows and movies. Or when a non-Disney pops up on Disney-owned Hulu.
In today’s case, I see the 20th Century Fox logo twice when I pop the DVD in, despite the fact it was produced by Orion-Nova Productions and distributed by United Artists. And also the DVD features the MGM logo, too. It’s confusing. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s all I need to talk about one of my favorite movies of all time!
Yeah, for all my love and appreciation for animation, I do, in fact, love a variety of live action fare. I mean, just because I love bright, colorful cartoons doesn’t mean that’s all I like. Criminy, with that logic, I should love Minions. But no. In fact, this movie is the complete antithesis to cartoons its ilk. It’s something I just wanna gush about, so let’s not waste time.
The plot: The trial for an 18-year-old boy has ended, with a frightening amount of evidence indicating he stabbed his father to death. Now the jury – the titular dozen irate adult males – must come to a unanimous vote. Guilty and he gets the chair. Not guilty and he goes free.
As they convene in the jury room, eleven of them confidently vote guilty…save for juror #8 (Henry Fonda), who doesn’t necessarily think the kid is innocent so much as the evidence doesn’t quite stack up. As the summer heat intensifies, the time ticks away, and tempers flare, the men have to reevaluate the evidence piece by piece to determine the boy’s fate.
How’s the writing?: What I think is most impressive about this movie is its minimalist approach. The entire film takes place inside a single room. The jurors are identifiable only by their number and occupations instead of names. Unlike a Law & Order episode, they’re not concerned about who might have actually killed the father or any legal procedure, or even whether or not the boy is actually innocent. There’s no flashbacks for visual appeal. There’s almost no score to flavor the scenes. A lot of dialogue meanders “pointlessly” (I’ll come back to that in a bit). There’s not even any color. So by virtue of lacking seemingly ANYTHING interesting, the strength of the movie comes almost purely from the actors and the writing. And with no obstructions to hide any potential issues…it’s practically flawless.
I’m dead serious. There is hardly a misfired line of dialogue to be found. There are spectacular outbursts followed by some savage burns that are worthy of a Tiktok video. There are plenty of insightful monologues revealing the profound depth these characters have. And each line is immaculately tailored to each characterization: from the polite juror #11 to the snarky juror #7. The analytical juror #4 to the gentle juror #9. The brash juror #3 to the meek juror #2. All of these men are profoundly unique in their ideals, actions, and words, and switching out a single word is unthinkable.
To a lot of other people, this movie might seem sluggish or slow, but the movie makes zero pretense about being anything else. In fact, its pacing is spectacular, with frequent breaks by the characters as they get frustrated so we can digest everything that gets discussed. You can even tell with what little actions get carried out while each microgesture has a purpose, nothing feels forced.
Does it give the feels?: This movie was written by the original writer, Reginald Rose, who originally wrote it for TV three years earlier. It was produced by both Rose and the film’s A-list star, Henry Fonda. This was also Sidney Lumet’s first directing gig, where he’d later go on to direct Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. It is a feat of immaculate wonders that this script came out so damn good.
Lumet takes great advantage of the cramped setting by inducing claustrophobia in the audience, making us feel just as irritable as the jurors. Several scenes are just a bunch of hunched shoulders of grumbling citizens getting sweatier and crankier as the time drags on. The tension rises minute by minute, and you realize how trepidatious things get as the jury is threatened to be hung. So while you root for juror #8 and the boy’s freedom, it’s not going to be easy as his stubborn colleagues threaten it with every passing sentence. The movie’s greatest asset is displaying how difficult it can be to champion for compassion and empathy when rage, prejudice, and disinterest are far easier.
Who makes it worth it?: I adore this movie because it reminds me of a Winnie the Pooh movie.
Hear me out.
And no, I don’t mean because Juror #2 is John Fiedler, the longtime voice of Piglet from 1968 to 2005. What I mean is the plot is almost incidental and the characters are the primary focus. Instead, we have 12 disparate, vivid personalities in a single, somewhat uninteresting environment. These characters have no choice but to ricochet off each other, sometimes complimenting each other, sometimes causing painful friction. And as such, you almost don’t care what the story is about, because the characters themselves make the movie worth watching.
First, there’s juror #7, a human version of Yogi Bear who throws out wisecracks and gripes about missing his baseball game. Juror #11 is the immigrant whose unwavering faith in the system is heartwarming. Juror #5 is the shy one from the ghetto, not unlike the defendant, who is incredibly uncomfortable with his past, but uses his insight to help analyze the case.
But of course, Fonda is the star, along with Lee J. Cobb as the primary antagonist as juror #3. What makes Fonda interesting is it would have been so easy to make him sanctimonious or didactic, unyieldingly certain of the boy’s innocence. But instead, when everyone asks why he’s being contrarian, he insists that coincidences and mistakes are simply possible. And yes, he is even asked a few times what if the kid actually IS guilty…to which he doesn’t have an answer. While everyone is willing to send the kid to the chair and be done with it, juror #8 instead wants to fully discuss every bit of evidence, wanting to affirm “beyond a reasonable doubt” to its fullest conclusion. He is hardly infallible, too, as at one point, after feeling like he failed to convince anyone, he proposes to go along with a guilty conviction should he remain alone…and is surprised to have gained an ally.
By contrast, juror #3 is the biggest opponent of #8’s resistance. Hot-tempered, misanthropic, and an abusive father, juror #3 is thoroughly convinced the boy is guilty and is typically the first to argue against every contrary point. It’s revealed he’s mostly projecting his feelings of disappointment and rage onto the defendant because of his own unresolved feelings about his estranged son. However, I take this with a grain of salt in 2021, having seen numerous men scream with frothing rage because kids don’t respect their elders, what it means to be a man, and literally fight tooth and nail to their ideals, even when they’re clearly proven wrong.
In the end, to further emphasize #8’s ideas of empathy, he still helps the shell-shocked #3 with his jacket as they finally file out of the room.
Best quality provided: The script and the cast. Simply because they can’t hide behind anything else, and everything is laid bare. As such, 12 Angry Men is a master class in character development and relationships. Moreover, the characters can say and do anything as long as it shows off who they are. Juror #12, for example, is easily distracted and gets off topic thinking about sales pitches and quirky idioms that provide a breath from the debate at hand but maintain a sense of discomfort. Another great scene has juror #10 go off on a thinly-veiled tangent demonstrating his racist ideals. Even #3 won’t put up with him as one by one, each man gets up, walks away, and literally keep their backs to him. He loses steam as he sees no one’s listening, and only when everyone turns on him does he slink away and shut down.
Also, there are moments of inherent badassery that make this story astoundingly compelling. One of the most notable is when they debate over the murder weapon – a switchblade – and point out just how unique it is…then #8 pulls out an identical knife and stabs it into the table, silencing the debate once and for all. And while there are several great retorts, my personal favorite is when racist #10 gripes about the kid and his kind, that they “Don’t speak good english!”, #11, the immigrant, adds, “Doesn’t speak good english.” It’s a thing of beauty.
What could have been improved: If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed I haven’t mentioned two of the jurors. And that’s because they have so little to offer it’s kind of a shame.
Juror #1, the foreman, is tasked with calling for votes and while he talks a lot, he rarely says anything that has any bearing on the case at hand. It’s kind of a shame we don’t know much about him beyond he likes organization and he’s a high school football coach. Juror #6 blends in the background, with his most striking contribution when he threatens #3 with physical harm should he insult the elderly juror #9 again.
Through no fault of the writing itself, there are multiple moments where characters use outdated phrases that might sound cumbersome at best and antiquated at its worst. They might distract a modern viewer, but that’s hardly Rose’s fault, now, is it?
Verdict: This movie deserves all the praise it gets and more. If it isn’t already, it needs to be on the curriculum of every theater/dramatic arts class as a means to demonstrate character, camera movement, writing, and plot without needing anything else. It’s essentially the antithesis of James Cameron’s Avatar…in fact, I think these two movies should be shown side-by-side for that very reason.
But one other thing I like to state here before I end the review: I love politics in my movies.
Movies cannot exist in a vacuum. They are made in specific time periods by people with opinions. Of course the director’s ideals are going to slip through. And with my liberal preferences, I like to scope out what certain films have to say about humanity and what is the “right” way of doing things. Yes, a lot of them do have liberal ideals, but you get movies like Forrest Gump, which extol the values of meritocracy, or Fiddler on the Roof, which fetishizes tradition in changing world.
And 12 Angry Men, to me, is far more significant than a spectacular courtroom drama. As a story and character piece, it’s exemplary. But it’s a story I take to heart because it advocates empathy and kindness above everything else. Juror #8, as I said, is often asked what if the boy actually committed the crime, and he admits it’s a possibility. But he’d rather the boy be guilty and free than innocent and dead. A conservative ideal lately often takes the opposite stance, afraid of someone taking advantage of the system more than supposing someone being at the wrong place at the wrong time. (Currently, the GOP would rather suppress legitimate votes than risk any illicit votes, and constrict social safety nets rather than risk a single “welfare queen”) The context of the movie makes it clear that valuing his life to more than a dismissive five minutes of consideration is something everyone deserves, even a non-white boy from the slums with a criminal record.
His staunchest opponents are systemic attitudes that keep him down and unable to rise out of his living conditions. Cold, analytical rationalization from #4. Complete indifference from #7. Simple racism from #10. Spite and cynicism from #3. Impotence from #2. Indecision from #12. Disinterest from #1. Shame from #5. All of these elements are bad enough on their own, but blended together create a systemic issue intended to oppress ethnic kids from the slums and negate any potential for him to grow, yet pretending to be justice. I’m still haunted by Kirsten Sinema’s mocking dance as voted no on raising the minimum wage, while wearing her coat and purse: how a system meant to serve the people fail when the people deciding civilian’s fates just don’t care and want to go home, much like half the jurors in the movie. In fact, when the scene pops up where four of them are playing Tic-Tac-Toe as #8 is trying to make a point, just try to not imagine your local elected officials doing the same.
And I guess that’s what impresses me most about this movie. Over six decades later and we still haven’t changed a damn thing. Not a single argument or perspective, no matter from which side, is not pertinent in 2021. We need movies like 12 Angry Men to show just how important it is to practice kindness, patience, empathy, compassion, and benefit of the doubt. Yes, it is entirely possible our efforts will not always be reciprocated, and there will be those who abuse the privileges we grant…but I’d rather live in a world where a messed-up, possibly violent kid can grow up and get help rather than one that assumes coincidences can’t happen and innocents are sentenced to death.
So yeah. Ten identically matching switchblades out of ten. No contest.
Court is adjourned.