12 Angry Men was a unique experience for me. My exposure to classic films is limited and I am much more accustomed to the types of films released today. Today’s films either have an extravagant special effects budget or big names and stars attached to them, the types of things that get ordinary viewers like me into a theater. As 12 Angry Men predates my birth by almost forty years, I have no clue whom any of the cast members are, and with almost of the entirety of the movie taking place in a single room, there is very little happening other than dialogue between characters. Despite this, I enjoyed 12 Angry Men very much. Through an impressive accomplishment of deep character development and powerful themes, 12 Angry Men makes a movie that takes place in a single, ordinary room, with twelve ordinary men, incredibly engaging and thought provoking and proves a great story does not need fancy tricks.
The film starts off in a courthouse where the judge explains that the jury must decide whether the 18-year-old boy being prosecuted is guilty of killing his father, and if found guilty, the boy would be sentenced to death. Shorty after, we follow the twelve-jury members to the jury room, where the entirety of the movie will take place in real time. In a seemingly transparent case, eleven of the twelve-jury members decide the boy is guilty in a preliminary vote, with only our main character-voting innocent. Discussion ensues to decide the guilt of the boy as we learn more about the case and the jurors themselves.
What made this so engaging is the variety of personalities and backgrounds each character has and how it affects their decisions and the lessons they learn in the process. Each character has their own motives and morals guiding how they perceive the case. In another of the plethora of details that make this movie unique, we do not know the names of any of the twelve jurors except for two who introduce themselves to each other in the final scene. We can only refer to each character by their jury number, a detail that allows their personalities to shine even more. Some of the characters take much larger roles in the development of the themes of the film and I want to discuss the most interesting ones and what themes and ideas they bring to the table.
Our main character, juror #8, is the facilitator for most of the discussion in this movie. He is someone many of the jurors are initially irritated with as his dissenting vote impedes their hopes of going home early. Early in the film, we see his morals and sense of justice drive him to resist the pressure of the other jurors and do what he thinks is right even if it means facing the animosity of his peers. "I just think we owe him a few words, that's all,” he says in defense of his vote.
Interestingly, I initially disagreed with juror #8. With its realistic, motive driven characters and real time discussion, 12 Angry Men invites you to put yourself in the jury and imagine how you would react. Given the known details of the case, I would probably be sure the boy was guilty and be annoyed with juror #8 as well. (MILD SPOILER) As he makes his case for the doubt of the boy's guilt and slowly convinces the other juror's to doubt the boy's guilt, my initial disagreement with him made me really appreciate his courage that much more. It takes courage and mental toughness to stand up for what you believe in, especially if everyone thinks you are wrong. As he deals with the animosity of the others, he continues to make his case and slowly change the minds of those who disagree with him. In a demonstration of mental fortitude, juror #8 exemplifies the tenacity needed to follow your morals, a lesson important to all.
As the discussion continues, he continuously brings up the idea of reasonable doubt, and that while it is unlikely the boy is innocent, the evidence does not confirm it and he could be innocent. Through juror #8, we the audience are questioned about the nature of justice. After convincing the majority of the jury to question the boy's guilt, juror #8 says, "It's always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we're just gambling on probabilities - we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don't know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that's something that's very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it's sure."
The idea of justice is explored here and that "right and wrong" means something different in the American system. The jury was not tasked to determine if the boy was innocent. They were tasked to determine if he was guilty, and if they had any doubts, they were to conclude that the boy was not guilty. This does not mean the boy is innocent, it just means that they cannot determine that he is definitely guilty. This concept of justice pushes the conscience of both the jurors and the audience. Justice errs in favor of the guilty and would rather have two guilty men go free than put one innocent man in prison. Whether this is more morally legitimate than erring in favor of the innocent is a challenging question. Regardless of our personal feelings of fairness, juror #8 reminds us that justice calls for only unquestionable guilt.
A theme that is less explored but just as impactful to the story is the relationship a father has with his son. This is the situation with Juror #3, our main antagonist and last juror to doubt the boy's innocence. Early in the film, we learn that he has a 22-year-old son. "When he was sixteen, we had a fight. Hit me in the jaw - a big kid. Haven't seen him for two years. Kids... work your heart out...” This detail deepens our understanding of our main antagonist, revealing why he is so adamant about the boy's guilt, and providing a much more emotional impact by the character.
In the climax of the film juror #3 is left as the remaining jury member to vote guilty and the rest of the members confront him together. In his height of frustration and anger, he realizes he is projecting his feelings toward his son on the boy in question and finally changes his vote to not guilty. Through his back-story, we learn that juror #3 had to work hard to provide for his boy and he invested tremendous amounts of time, love, and effort into raising him. For his son to leave him is disappointing, frustrating, and heartbreaking. The effect this has on him is tragic and reminds the audience of the value of children to their parents, a lesson that adds an emotional twist to the ending of the film.
In a final note, I want to analyze juror #7, and how he adds an interesting layer into the theme of justice. While most of the jury members are either emotionally or morally invested in the case, juror #7 does not care. "I don't know about the rest of 'em but I'm gettin' a little tired of this yakity-yack and back-and-forth, it's gettin' us nowhere. So I guess *I'll* have to break it up; I change my vote to 'not guilty'." While this angers juror #11 and prompts him to confront juror #7 and tell him he should vote out of conscience not convenience, he quickly realizes that nothing can be done about it and he bottles up his resignation. Juror #7 exemplifies how the judicial system is not infallible and that determining guilt or innocence can sometimes come down to a whim.
12 Angry Men explores the morals and motives of twelve men through thought provoking discussion and deep character development. Lacking any special tricks or fancy visuals, the story alone carries this film and throws you into a complex moral dilemma where multiple themes can be explored. This small film proves to be a classic.