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Posted on 1/05/13 05:27 PM
Everybody knows this film but I was really surprised at just how deep it managed to go with its premise. Somewhere I read that Ingmar Bergman once said, or that somebody once said of his films, that analyzing smaller pies of human conduct results in greater universal statements of humanity than trying to tackle the most abstractly large premise you can. For example, take Bergman's trilogy, three films about the internal conflicts of only a couple of people, with the films themselves having extremely small casts inspired by the minimalist atmosphere of chamber dramas. I got way more out of those films and how they view the world than, say, Aronofsky's obtuse "The Fountain," where he tries to shove the cosmos, universe, and a bunch of abstract metaphysical CGI dreck into a simple statement about human love.
"12 Angry Men" is a great film that makes such broad, but intelligent, statements of human morality merely from analyzing, real-time in the spirit of "High Noon," the exchanges among twelve jurors in a small room as they debate whether to grant reasonable doubt to a boy on trial for murder. The only juror who originally deems the boy as "not guilty" is played by Henry Fonda, who plays the voice of reason in exercising his right to express his opinion and perspective when there were eleven other voices trying to stifle his. His performance is bold and impassioned, but if not a touch vain and narcissistic (him also being the producer of a film where his character's antics lead to, if not are, the direct triumph of the film, not to mention the bathroom scene where a juror says, "Nice bunch of guys, heh?" and Fonda just replies, "Oh, they're about the same as anyone else;" whoa! Talk about condescension. And the Socratic line he always uses, in response to somebody questioning him if he thinks the boy really is guilty or not, of, more or less, "I don't know, but I know I'm smarter than you," is also a bit of a turn off.)
Nevertheless, I digress. Like John Bender from "The Breakfast Club," Fonda's character is the one who breaks down the walls of conformism and everybody accepting whatever they have, even if it means they sacrifice their own chances at being an influence. In this film we can see, so directly and clearly that it's hitting your head with a hammer, why democracies, morality, and making yourself heard are so important. It doesn't matter if the boy really did kill his pop or not, it only matters that the trial didn't have sufficient evidence to be irrevocably certain that he was genuinely guilty. Why is this so important? It's because we can see that the jurors themselves are the boy.
They represent his background, as with one juror who grew up in a similar environment, his inability to articulate himself vocally, as with one juror who grammatically butchered a sentence, his poor memory, as with the juror who couldn't remember the titles and players of certain films he saw, and in all cases, he is pitted against us as well. There are the bigots with prejudices, as was with one older juror, people who just don't care and arguably abuse their civil rights, as with the baseball game juror, the men and women on their own crusade to collectively punish whomever is representative of their dislikes, as with the father, the antithesis to Fonda's character, who was endlessly disappointed in his own son and holding his own crusade against youth culture as opposed to doing the right thing, etc.
But, the boy is also pitted against, and originally deemed as guilty, by the very jurors who represented him! The juror who grew up in a poor background would easily be deemed guilty, even if he were completely innocent, by the other bigoted juror who saw all lower class youths as a menace to society. And yet, that lower class juror only chose guilty from timid conformism and an unwillingness to be impassioned or vocal about something, even if it means you have to look bad and ostracized from a group.
That's the importance of always chipping in your perspective in a situation, because when time comes and you could be the falsely accused person on trial, you'd better pray that your jury isn't as indifferent as the eleven jurors, besides Fonda, originally were. The facts that were taken down throughout the course of the film were all nitpicks, this I concede. However, the purpose wasn't that they proved the boy to be innocent, which they didn't, but because they left room for reasonable doubt that he could be. Accidents and coincidences can happen, first hand accounts can be obfuscated by a multitude of factors, and these were all demonstrated throughout the course of the film. But, when time comes we find ourselves in such a dire situation, since I already mentioned that it could be any of those jurors, they representing us, up there, we'd all like to be given that chance at being discovered innocent. And, if a fact really were bogus, it would be tremendous to have it taken out of consideration or at least, God forbid, not the sole cause of being burdened with a death sentence. That's the beauty of reasonable doubt being granted by an active group of socially-conscious people; it's a direct riposte to the misfortune that could strike us all.
There's still tons of say, of course, but my final say on this film's message will be this, that by sentencing that boy to death, the jurors might as well be killing themselves. Okay, that's a bit excessive. But seriously, utilitarian egalitarian societies are hard; it takes all of us at our best efforts to achieve one.
And, if you're, like, some fascist or tyrant reading this review from the top of his diamond tower who hates freedom and morality, then there's still reason to view this film solely on its aesthetic qualities and technique, although I don't think I have to tell you of this film's famous mastery over a minimalist setting, its impeccable acting (though some parts have become outdated,) its gorgeous cinematography that acts as a character all on its own creating tension in the atmosphere or illuminating the dynamics of the characters interacting, etc. In hindsight, looks like my "review" was more of a long-winded dissection and explanation of this film's message. I don't really regret that since everybody raves about the minimalist setting and excellent direction instead of tackling on everything this film has to offer in its message, which I really do think substantially enriches this film. It's like "Rashomon" meets a judiciary, utilitarian, and moralizing twist.