12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

07Apr11

Henry Fonda (Juror #8), Lee J. Cobb (Juror #3). Screenplay by Reginald Rose. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Rating: U. Running time: 96 minutes.

Only in America could a film like 12 Angry Men be made. Only there could a country so openly take a long, hard look at the very principles upon which its system of government is founded, exposing the nation’s vices as well as its virtues in the process. Released in the middle of the Cold War, 12 Angry Men was, quite surprisingly, shown behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviet elite somehow judged it to be a good piece of propaganda against their enemy which they didn’t even have to bankroll themselves. How foolish could they be, to not see that in making the film itself, the US was a country of remarkable nobility. The fact it’s even partly negative is precisely what’s so positive about it.

Here we have a jury of middle-aged, middle-class white men in charge of deciding the fate of a young boy accused of murdering his father, and they seem to be the kind of people that led Plato to hand exclusive decision making authority to the specially educated elite. They begin by embodying everything that is bad about democracy. 11 of them judge the boy ‘guilty’ in the preliminary vote, but the first juror’s reason is that he guesses he just ‘seems so,’ another bases his judgement openly on prejudice against kids from the ‘slums,’ and another seems more interested in getting to a ballgame later in the evening, following the majority in an attempt to get things wrapped up quickly. If it weren’t for Henry Fonda’s character, the film’s white-suited, angel-like protagonist playing the role of a wake-up call, these men would have dogmatically agreed to send a boy to the electric chair without a second’s critical reflection. What makes it all the more disturbing is that, with time, every one of them comes to genuinely believe through the oh-so crucial process of vocal deliberation that the room for reasonable doubt is more than sufficient, and we’re left with the triumph of reason in the face of so much early naivete.

Lee J. Cobb is awesome as the bitter, aggressive leader of the ‘guilty’ pack, the last to change his mind largely because he turns the discussion into a battle of honour rather than a pursuit of the truth. He was mad in On the Waterfront and he’s mad again here, snarling at a ‘defector’ and yelling ‘whose side are you on?’

In this one line, the film sums up the problem with public deliberation: when you assert your stance so fervently, it’s very hard to go back on it without irrationally hurting your pride, even if the reasons for the contrary view become blindingly obvious. Fortunately, the reservoir of wisdom and good will, ever-present in liberal cultures, is slowly awakened here, not least so in the proud, naturalised citizen who soon proclaims their responsibility to think long and hard. This is an advert for hell that turns into heaven, and it never stops being important throughout.

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