Book reviews, new books, publishing news, book giveaways, and author interviews

Film Review: 12 Angry Men

 Film Review: 12 Angry Men

Our current filmic landscape is one thats awash with huge budgets, dazzling special effects and elaborate sets, all of which are too often used to disguise the fact that theyre working with slim plots and characters furnished with little more than a veneer of personality. The danger of having all these technological affordances at hand is that were so tempted to use them wherever we can.

It comes as almost a relief, then, to watch something that is so stripped back and pared down that its all about the characters.

Based on the Reginald Roses teleplay of the same name, 1957s'12 Angry Men'is a searing, claustrophobic and often frustrating viewing experience whose success rests entirely on the strength of its cast. Save a few minutes at its beginning and end, the entire film occurs within a single room. Its a setting that both acts as an enclosure and a barrier, and the anonymity and isolation it facilitates a sense of moral ambiguity and alienation. The positioning of the camera to one side of the room almost'forces the viewer to become almost a silent participantor a judge over what unfolds.

And thats precisely the point. Our cast, you see, comprises a series of twelve jurors, all of them white, largely middle-aged men, who have spent a week in court listening to a murder trial involving a young boy from the slums. With the trial concluded, the jurors have adjourned to the jury room to make their final decision over the defendants guiltand over whether or not the boy will be sent to be executed. Its a case that seems clear cut, and the jurors are confident that a quick vote will be enough to settle the record and finalise things.'Lets vote now. Who knows, maybe we can all go home, says one.'And sure enough, the guilty votes are overwhelming, with the various jurors certain that the defendant is guilty of the murder. All save one, played by Henry Fonda, who suggests he has reasonable doubt about the boys guilt.

There were eleven votes for guilty, he says when asked why he has dissented. Its not so easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die'without talking about it first.

The jurors set about attempting to disabuse the juror of his apparently misguided notions, which they see variously as being nothing more than a bleeding heart, or of a layperson being inappropriately critical of the legal system. As the jurors give their reasoning behind their assertions of the boys guilt, we begin to see just how problematic the idea of a fair trial at the hand of ones peers truly is. No matter the fact that the jurors are anonymisedbar for two jurors at the very end, who exchange names upon leaving the court, we never even learn their namesthey bring with them to a trial their own deeply entrenched prejudices, their own experiences, and their own personal flaws and foibles.

One of the jurors, for example, is desperate to attend a baseball gamehis assertion of the defendants guilt largely hinges on the fact that he wants the proceedings to be over quickly so that his tickets dont go to waste. Without a fortuitous deluge of rain, the defendant might have hanged purely because of one mans impatience. Another has a deep-seated loathing of those from the slums, and is working from the assumption that we all know how those people are, rather than from any true consideration of the facts. Yet another is incapable of analytical thought: his assessment of the trial scarcely goes beyond an appreciation of the fact that facts were presented, and in order. His verdict, then, is based on whatever everyone around him asserts to be the truth.

In addition to these individual failings, theres also a disturbing lack of understanding of the justice system, which is made all the more worrisome given that the jurors reiterate their belief in the strength of the system. They speak of an individuals right to a fair trial, and yet fail to see that the trial doesnt merely stop when the court is adjourned, but continues into the jurors room. They argue that the defendant has failed to defend himself, even though that responsibility is not hisrather, its that of the prosecution. They think in terms of guilty and not guilty, rather than the all-important reasonable doubt. Even their conception of reasonable doubt is remarkably hazy, with most conceiving of it as able to be equated with proof of innocence.

As the film progresses, our rebellious juror gradually leads the others to question their own motivations in passing along a guilty verdict, and whether they are acting as impartial peers, or whether theyve been swayed by their own personal experiences or prejudices, or by a fervent and unchecked belief in the systema system that they seem to believe casts a person as guilty the moment theyre brought to trial. Whats fascinating, though, is how readily the jurors, who have been led in one direction purely on the weight of argument and circumstantial evidence, are led in the other by exactly the same. The film might just as easily have begun with a not guilty verdict and travelled in the other direction. Its not the verdict here thats crucial (except, of course, if youre the lad on trial) so much as it is the way in which people make decisions as a group, and the way in which justice is defined and meted out. Perhaps whats most affecting is when the men make their decision, and head off back to their various livestheres a stunning flippancy to this that suggests, despite their apparent character growth, that their eventual decision is merely one of group-think; that big decisions are beyond the scope of a jury of peers, and are seen as a task for someone else altogether.

Taking place largely in a single room, and with strict, continuous actionthe films running time is equal to that of the time spent debating the trial12 Angry Men is stiflingly tense, taut and claustrophobic. What could be a painfully pretentious conceit is used to impressive effect, and indeed can be because of the plot is entirely character-based, and its themes so universally relevant. The characters really do carry this film, and although director Lumet does play with scenic and musical devices at times, these are kept to a minimum. The weather conditions outside reflect the changing sentiments within the room, shifting from record heat through to a riotous thunder storm as the conflict reaches fever pitch, for example; the film score is minimal, so much so that when it does swell up, its almost disorienting.

With its meditations on group decision making, perceptions of justice, personal alienation, and the hand-balling of responsibility,'12 Angry Men is a truly affecting film, and its little wonder that its become such a highly regarded classic.


  1. Surprisingly I dont remember this movie at all; time for a rewatch

    • Stephanie /

      This was my first time watching this one, but Im glad I did. Definitely a memorable film!

Comments make us happy! Do say hello!

Follow us on Blog Lovin' Follow on Bloglovin