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After the Facts: 12 Angry Men, Movie Review Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1847

Movie Review

Introduction

What sets 12 Angry Men apart as a courtroom drama is that none of the action takes place in a courtroom.   The film is usually hailed as a classic of the type, yet the entire story is confined chiefly to a jury’s deliberation room, with only a few minutes away for brief moments in a men’s room and outside the courthouse.  Consequently, the processes of the trial in question are known only as they are revisited in the often heated exchanges between the jurors.  It is clear that a trial has indeed occurred, and witnesses, the defendant, and the course of it are repeatedly debated by these men.   A component of the drama, then, lies in this “off-stage” aspect; as the men battle over trial issues, those events and issues are gradually revealed, even as the juror personalities color interpretations of actual testimony.

Beyond this, a few other elements interestingly separate the film from more modern movie treatments of trials.  One is a necessary suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience.  It seems that the Reginald Rose screenplay for the 1957 film was more concerned with the trial as a dramatic device, one by which he could make a statement about society and dangerous perceptions, rather than any regard to actual trial procedures.  For example, the mid-20th century era notwithstanding, it is highly unlikely that several of these jurors would have made it through the voir dire jury selection process.  The case at hand is a capital one and it seems improbable that even a public defender assigned as counsel would have permitted such blatantly racist men to take places in the jury.   This relates to another gross inconsistency, in that the jurors themselves raise questions regarding the legitimacy of witnesses that even an inept defense counsel would have seized upon during the examinations.  Here, again, realism appears to be sacrificed for the sake of dramatic effect.   As will be shown, however, that effect is nicely achieved.   12 Angry Men, significant flaws notwithstanding, is a powerful statement about how very wrong the criminal justice system may go, in its time-honored reliance on the jury system.

Basic Elements and Conflicts

As noted, there is no way to address the trial component of 12 Angry Men without involving the entire film as set in the jury deliberation room.  Throughout the bulk of the movie, trial occurrences and issues are brought up, refuted, and examined.   The only exception to this is the judge’s directions to the men, which begin the movie.  He reminds them that the case is a capital one, and that the defendant will live or die based upon their verdict.  Not long into the film, the basic facts of the case are discussed, as an initial vote reveals a lone dissenter to a verdict of “guilty”, juror no. 8.   The men then take turns in relaying the information:  an adolescent boy with a checkered history is accused of killing his father with a knife after an argument.  There is excessive reference to the poverty of the defendant, as the murder occurred in a slum district.  Then, the jurors alternately bring up, and immediately begin debating, the witnesses, their veracity, and the defendant’s own alibi.   There is also the point made, early on, addressing the odd fact that the public defender appeared so uninterested in the case, he offered no challenges to blatantly suspect testimony.  While this seems to be a device inserted to justify the substance of the jury debate, it at least somewhat explains what would otherwise be too flagrant a departure from an actual trial.

As the discussion carries on, it becomes evident that two key witnesses testified for the prosecution.  One was an elderly man living in the same building, who swore he heard the boy and his father argue, and that the boy declared he would kill the father.  This same neighbor claimed to have also heard the body fall when the father was killed and, rushing into the hallway, seeing the defendant flee the scene.  Not unexpectedly, this allows for a good deal of argument within the jury, most of which is highly dramatic.  The more rational jurors, particularly no. 8, question that so elderly a man could have so clearly heard what he claimed to have heard.  Then, the jurors actually reenact the scene, to decide if the witness, who was also disabled, could have possibly been able to get to the hall quickly enough to see the boy running out.  As the men debate this witness’ credibility, they also challenge the value of the overhead statement, “I’m going to kill you.”  It is, of course, eventually accepted that this is a phrase often uttered in the heat of anger, and not actually an intent.  A scuffle in the jury room, in fact, during which the intransigent and hostile juror 3 makes the same comment, effectively eviscerates the testimony.

The second piece of testimony to be reexamined in the deliberation room is that of the woman who claimed that she actually saw the murder from her apartment window, through a passing elevated train.  Apparently, and somewhat strangely, the prosecution’s establishing of credibility of this witness was confined to proving that an action may be properly witnessed through such an obstacle, based on the jurors’ discussion.  More remarkably, it is the jurors who suddenly realize that the witness wears eyeglasses, and that it is unreasonable to conclude that she had time to put them on and see the crime under the outlined circumstances.  Consequently, this witness is rendered as implausible as the other and, in keeping with the rhythm of the film, votes are changed.

The other, concrete element of the case as explored by the jurors goes to the manner in which the murder was committed.   A knife wound killed the father, but the angle of penetration was a downward thrust, and the defendant is much shorter than the victim.  Again, and quite evidently to add action to the scenario, the jurors stage variations on the crime, to determine if stabbing from that angle was possible for the boy.  It is, of course, possible for a shorter man to stab a taller man with a downward thrust but, as juror 5 points out, it is extremely unlikely.  This is the juror with an admitted history of living in slum conditions and with street violence, and his opinion carries great weight.  Simply, the men bow to the logic that the boy would use the knife in the most convenient way, and penetrate with an upward thrust.  This aspect of the case was also ignored by the defendant’s defense team.

In regard to dramatic impacts, 12 Angry Men takes a course seemingly necessary for its integrity as a courtroom drama.  That is to say, the introductions of the types of men these jurors are clearly indicate the ethical natures of each, as it appears inevitable that the calm reasoning of juror 8 will overcome the extreme hatred of juror 3, and consequently win the other men over to the side of justice.  This is the trajectory set in motion at the beginning; after the initial vote reveals 8 as the lone dissenter, he makes arguments and then calls for a “secret” vote, and another juror joins him in dissenting.  The impression made by this, then, is that, one by one, these men will turn to the side of right, and abandon the discrimination fueling their initial verdicts of “guilty”.  Such a course, however, would eviscerate dramatic impact, as too much may be taken for granted.  What the film does, then, is reverse the direction of the votes on one occasion.  Before the testimony of the nearsighted woman is examined, her statements are presented as evidence the others are ignoring, and one vote reverts back to guilty.   This occasion, coming somewhat late in the film, serves to generate a needed degree of uncertainty.

The chief element of dramatic impact, and what likely promotes new versions of 12 Angry Men made periodically, is that no other courtroom drama is so invested in this jury deliberation process.  In the criminal justice system, this process is perceived as virtually sacrosanct, and certainly as an intensely private affair.  Largely owing to 12 Angry Men, in fact, popular films and television programs have ventured into this terrain, yet each still gains in power by the sheer force of the impropriety of it.   To this day, certainly in American culture, the jury deliberation process remains a potent ritual, and one intrinsically imbued with enormous significance.   This is where justice is to be truly manifested, if it ever may be, as the trial is never anything more than the foundation of it.  The weight of this responsibility, then, is very much a part of the film’s impact, and notably in the way that certain jurors are unwilling to accept the importance of the obligation.

Along these lines, 12 Angry Men achieves another kind of impact, and one ironically generated by its most overtly stereotypical characterizations.  More exactly, a recurring issue within the story is how much the defendant’s ethnic background is influencing juror thought.  The boy is Latino, and certain jurors unashamedly make disparaging, racist remarks.  These remarks are, of course, challenged, but they go to an interesting and inescapable facet of the system itself.  That is to say: is it possible that a jury may be impartial?  A prospective juror may not perceive themselves as biased, but it is not uncommon for people to harbor beliefs of which they are themselves unaware.  The interesting component in the film, then, is not how racism is influencing the strikingly racist juror no. 3, but how it plays into the thoughts of the more restrained men.  More importantly, this same question arise from more fundamental issues.   As the film develops, it is not actually racist hatred prompting juror 3, but deeply personal problems related to his being a father himself.  He has been the object of violence from his own son, albeit in very different circumstances, and it is this that renders him so despising of the defendant.  Consequently, 12 Angry Men asks a question to which there is no easy answer, in that we are all conditioned by our own lives and histories to view events in biased ways.

Conclusion

As noted, 12 Angry Men has been filmed more than a few times since it first saw life as a 1954 television play.   The 1957 film discussed here lives on as a classic, yet it is interesting that a film so reliant on an old-fashioned, and generally unreal, depiction of a trial process could so endure.  It accomplishes this because the flaws in the structure are no more meaningful than the exaggerated character types of the jury; this is a film about a basic process, one at the very heart of the justice system and one that may, simply by virtue of its being reliant on human judgment, go very wrong.  12 Angry Men, significant weaknesses notwithstanding, is a powerful statement about how the criminal justice system may violate its own intentions, in its time-honored reliance on the jury system.

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