Several years ago, I was talking with friends about how I’d just been dismissed from jury duty; I’d sat in the jury pool for just one day and got called into one voir dire, but that was it. I was complaining that I hadn’t been selected for a jury, as I was curious to take that task on someday. “Oh, I don’t think you’d ever be picked for a jury,” one friend said. “You ask too many questions and think too much.”
“Wait, why is that a bad thing?”
“Put yourself in the lawyers’ shoes,” he went on. “Would you want someone like you poking holes in their cases, or someone who accepts what they say?”
This classic courtroom drama (or, rather, a jury room drama) is an illustration of what my friend was getting at. The “twelve angry men” of the title are the twelve jury members in a murder trial, charged with deciding the fate of a teenage boy accused of stabbing his father. Eleven of them are ready to convict right away, but one (Henry Fonda) isn’t so sure; he insists they take a more careful look at the evidence. And as they do over the course of 90 minutes, the others find they might have second thoughts.
It’s a simple and straightforward story that’s been told and retold a lot. The original work was a teleplay from 1953 which was so well-received that director Sidney Lumet was able to give it a full cinema treatment. It’s also enjoyed more recent re-stagings for television and on stage, both on the professional circuit and the high-school-drama-club market. It’s so familiar that when I was recounting the plot to my physical therapist the other day, someone across the room overheard and asked, “you’re talking about 12 Angry Men, right?”
And yet the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen did not make this any less gripping. The story isn’t so much about the actual verdict itself, but rather about what each of the twelve men on the jury are thinking, why they’re thinking it, and precisely what props up those thoughts – and what perspective makes them change their minds. We only learn the things about them which impact their feelings about the case – one juror (Joseph Sweeney) is an elderly man who realizes a witness, also older, is too feeble to have moved quickly enough for him to have seen the crime at all. Another (Jack Klugman) is a soft-spoken wallflower with a deceptively hard past – one which has given him a familiarity with switchblades, which leads him to realize the evidence about the stab wound is all wrong. Two other jurors (Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley) are influenced by unconscious bias, while another (Jack Warden) just wants to make it to a Yankees game in time and goes along with whatever the current mood of the room might be. And the pivotal juror (Henry Fonda) is a meticulous thinker who simply happens to take jury duty very seriously.
Sidney Lumet uses some subtle camera tricks to play up the tension in the room – gradually filming in tighter and tighter closeups to make scenes feel claustrophobic, or periodically emphasizing the growing heat in the room. But I didn’t even notice these things as I was getting swept up in the unfolding jury deliberation.
I was also uncomfortably realizing how unique a courtroom drama it is – because it’s a best-case scenario. Most other courtroom dramas focus on the court instead – the lawyers grilling witnesses, the defendant stoically listening to their accusers. The good lawyers are all eloquent and persuasive; the bad lawyers all either make dumb mistakes or are biased themselves. We rarely hear from the jury at all, which is wild considering they are the most critical element of any trial – they are the ones tasked with sorting through the truth of what those eloquent lawyers and witnesses have been saying. And, as this film reminds us, sometimes the truth isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as Jack McCoy or Perry Mason would have us believe.
To be fair, this particular jury room discussion felt a tiny bit scripted once or twice – there were a couple jurors who changed their minds a little too easily, and Henry Fonda had a couple of speeches about the importance of their duties which got a tiny bit florid. But it still gave me a lot of food for thought at what kind of narrative our society tells itself about how “Law and Order” actually works. In the introduction to that famous TV show, the narrator relates that the show is about “two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crimes and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.” But this film reminds me that a third group, “the juries who evaluate their arguments,” are missing from that story.