Movie Review: Twelve Angry Men
Director: Sidney Lumet
Reviewed: 26 July 2013
What goes on inside of a jury room is the source of endless fascination. Regardless of the verdict reached in any case, outsiders can only wonder what the internal debate sounded like inside the jury room. In the recent Florida case, a jury of six women acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering teen Trayvon Martin, and the nation will never know how the verdict was reached despite seeing all of the testimony and arguments. Sidney Lumet does a neat thing with his 1957 film "Twelve Angry Men" by never showing the audience the trial. We are introduced to the jury as they file out of the courtroom, casting back glances at a young boy on trial for stabbing his father. But even before that, Lumet's camera focuses on the pillars of justice at the courthouse, soaring to the sky, which are about to coalesce inside of a small, claustrophobic, locked-in jury room in New York City.
The jury meets and nearly convicts the young defendant, but one man, an architect (Peter Fonda), offers up his belief that the case has a reasonable doubt. Plus, swiftly convicting a young man to face the electric chair bothers him, and he figures the boy deserves at least an hour of their talking about it. It is the hottest day of the year, the fan in the jury room is broken, and the various personalities of the other jurors slide in and out of focus, revealing each man's frailties and biases. One man has Yankee tickets and treats the situation cavalierly; another man rages at the defendant who reminds him of his own thankless son. There is a surprising amount of open prejudice, but then it is worth remembering that this film is twelve white male jurors passing judgement on a crime. Lumet's camera holds the cast expertly, allowing their sweaty faces and body language to communicate both disdain and disgust. It feels stagey and rightfully so; the film is essentially set inside of one room. The habit of occasionally offering a close-up of a character's face staring dead-on at the camera is a bit distracting (and kind of funny) but seems attributable to the style of the time. The music is light, and the arguments lively. What keeps it from a four star rating for me might simply be that the climax is left too unexplained; I wanted to know more about the psychology of the shift within the character's mind. Lee Cobb's histrionic performance does not contain enough for him to do with his rage. Perhaps Lumet wanted it to be more implied. The final gestures between Fonda and Cobb and the final shots are both incredibly powerful, though.
"Twelve Angry Men" is about people talking and talking and talking. Lumet's compelling film challenges its audiences through these jurors to consider their own prejudices and hang-ups, positing that a jury is often both the best and worst that America has to offer. One voice that I heard raised after the Trayvon Martin verdict addressed how Americans need to be more serious about showing up for jury duty, implying that maybe too many of us evade this civic requirement or do so reluctantly. However true that might be, the voice also implies that better jurors would equal more justice, and I don't know about that. I do know that the stresses of the real world keep many people reluctant to serve; the right to a fair trial by a jury of one's peers is important in the abstract but messy in reality.
I think that it is impossible to know what jurors carry into that room with them to deliberate and pass judgement on other people's lives. They bring life history, education, experience with the law, and fears. Lumet offers a window into this group of men in this place and time, and I wonder if America has the attention span for an update or a return to that sacred institution of the jury room. In this film, the men of the title are not even given names, just numbers. Thankfully, juror #8 pushes the others to think and consider what they think that they have seen. And at the end, they walk away, separate and probably never to run across each other again.