Part-Time Review: 12 Angry Men (1957) - The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Part-Time Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)

*12 Angry Men is a prestigious member of my Film Bible  
*If you are a teacher and want to use this film in your class, CLICK HERE for a handout I put together

"We're going to watch a ninety minute movie, from 1957, in black and white, that essentially takes place in just one room" is how I annually introduce 12 Angry Men to my high school "Worldviews" class. It's traditionally followed by some audible groans and a lot of teenager eye rolls/side glances. It's hard to blame them, simply describing 12 Angry Men is not that different than describing an ideal theoretical teenager attention span killer. However, despite their natural resistance and once we've reached the end of our showing the students never fail to sing its praises. What is it about this old black and white film that can engage my students on a first viewing and me on my 50th? I think 12 Angry Men's most powerful element is the central theme of its story: the importance of seeking truth despite all the natural human obstacles to it. It's the reason I show it during a "Worldviews" course and the reason I think it impacts my students just like its been powerfully impacting viewers since it's premiere. 

Of course, the cinematic elements can't be undervalued either: Boris Kaufman's camera expertly captures the jury room and the conflicts as if it was an action film, Carl Lerner's editing doesn't feature an extraneous frame of film, the all-star cast so inhabits their characters that each one practically becomes an archetype by the end, and behind it all is Sidney Lumet's masterful directing hand balancing every element to tell this story. All of that is great and when I watch it with my students it takes everything in my power not to stop the film every other second and point out how a shot is perfectly composed, how the camera movement connects with a certain theme, how the actor blocking is like a delicate dance, or an actor subtly developing a trait that builds up to matter by the ending. 12 Angry Men is a masterpiece of filmmaking and I always have a few cinephile students who really appreciate it on that level. 

Most students report their engagement isn't due to the cinematic elements but instead how the film's story and characters perfectly embody the quest for truth. The story revolves around the titular 12 men who are members of a jury in a murder trial where a sixteen year old boy is accused of murdering his father. If the boy is found guilty then he will receive the death penalty by way of the electric chair. The opening minutes of the movie show us the young boy as the jury is given their truth quest from the judge and they shuffle out at the end of the trial and head to the monumental task of deciding the boy's fate. If you were the young boy and you knew yourself to be innocent, it's hard to think of a more high stakes moment for wanting people to seek out the truth. Where the film really excels in how it identifies and embodies the qualities needed to be successful on a truth quest: patience, effort, community, overcoming our biases, and being uncomfortable with uncertainty. Will these men seek out the truth despite the many obstacles in their way?

As a worldviews teacher in a Christian school, one of the first things I address with my students is the choice they must make: to pursue truth or to purse their own pleasure/power. It's a fundamental choice we all must make in our lives - whenever there is a conflict between the two (truth or pleasure/power) which do we choose? It is a bit of a fool's errand to train high schoolers in logic, worldview, ten arguments for the existence of God or the trustworthiness of the Bible, if you don't address the heart that will throw it all overboard to gain more money, stability, comfort, time, reputation, or whatever it is they desire. As George MacDonald said, "To give truth to him who loves it not is but to give him more plentiful material for misinterpretation." It didn't take long for me to see that students weren't neutral little people just yearning for truth and once given would go forward without problems. All of us encounter major obstacles to seeking truth where the desire for pleasure/power takes on different faces. The genius of 12 Angry Men is that each juror embodies the various obstacles to seeking truth that we all must overcome. In this review I'd like to point out five of the specific obstacles that make the film such a rich viewing for me.

The first major obstacle to seeking truth that the film points out is PATIENCE. After instructions from the judge, the jurors enter the jury room, take their seats they take an initial vote: 11-1 in favor of guilty. To the shock of the other men, juror #8 (played with a confidence/humility that only Henry Fonda can pull off so well) has voted not guilty. When pressed by the other men he says he's not sure if the boy is guilty and wants to talk about it a bit before sending him off to die. Given the boy's background, juror #8 argues that they owe it to the boy to at least discuss the evidence before unanimously ending his life. Many of the other jury members scoff and sound off. One of the most disturbed is juror #7 who has baseball tickets to a Yankees game later in the day. More talk would mean he might miss out on the game. The insight here is chilling - would a human being really not want to spend a few extra minutes discussing the fate of a young boy just so that they wouldn't be denied a temporary pleasure like a baseball game? The enduring appeal of the movie and its connection the viewer proves the insight is VERY relatable to the viewer. After an initial discussion of the basic evidence in the trial and juror #8's questioning of it, the men wonder if it will be a hung jury. Number #8 then takes a gamble and asks for a secret vote; if one additional person votes "not guilty" then they continue to talk, if not then he will change to "not guilty." This is an important moment for the community of men, and juror #8 is testing the room to see if they will be patient enough to seek the truth. He takes the gambles and wins as juror #9 sides with him to spend more time talking it out.

Unfortunately, many of my high school students find themselves in the same boat in their mandatory Bible classes; while there bodies might be present in the room, their minds and hearts are on football fields, basketball courts, drama stages, AP tests, or social media platforms. While we aren't solving a real murder case in my classroom, we are discussing the major truths of our world: Does God really exist? If so, what does He want of me? What is my purpose? What will happen when I die? Are there any other possible questions that could have higher stakes in our lives? One of the hardest challenges of a truth quest and a spiritual life is to slow down and not get caught up in all the temporary things clamoring for our attention and our love. Discovering the truth takes time and the willingness to put aside the rush of life for more important eternal things. I don't think its a coincidence that patience is the first major obstacle to a truth quest and its the common factor in nearly every spiritual practice whether it be solitude, mediation, or prayer. 

The second major obstacle to seeking truth that the film points out is EFFORT. Thanks to the secret vote, the jury room is forced to slow down and become more patient. The goal for juror #8 is to use that newfound space to get the community to put effort into reasoning and thinking together. Many of the revelations in the case require the use of logic and the balancing of multiple pieces of evidence together. This moment is embodied well by the examination of the knife used in the stabbing. The court evidence showed that the murder knife (a switchblade knife) had a unique handle and design to it. The boy admitted to buying a knife just like it the night of the murder but that it had fallen through a hole in his pocket. Admittedly, the boy's story is difficult to accept. However, in one of the film's best "revelation" moments, juror #8 stands up and reveals a knife just like the murder weapon. He went out to the boys neighborhood the night before and bought it. It took an extra effort on juror #8's part to expend that time and money, but it went to show that perhaps the knife wasn't as unique as they thought - something they would not have known otherwise. After this revelation, juror numbers 2, 5, and 11 find themselves more drawn into the reasoning and conversation. More votes for not guilty eventually result.

I find that many people can kind of mockingly push past the "patience" obstacle in a truth quest because they know they aren't willing to put in the effort once their patience has established a space for it. I think of my students who tell me, "I set aside a few minutes for homework, but I just didn't understand it" or a more spiritual version, "I tried praying a bit but I didn't get anything out of it, so I just gave up." Patience helps create a space for a truth quest, but genuine effort is required to go any further. In our case, we need to learn to think, to train our minds in logic and argument. In a more spiritual case, we need to practice spiritual disciplines (discipline being the key word) again and again and again. Like anything worth doing, it takes great effort. We need to do our equivalent of going out into the neighborhood and seeking out a similar knife if we wanting to discover more than what falls into our lap. 

The third major obstacle to seeking truth that the film points out is COMMUNITY. The twelve men in the jury room form a community and though they are independent people it is clear that they can influence one another for good or for ill. While juror #8 is certainly the man spearheading the charge for more patience and thoughtfulness in their work, the movie goes through pains to make clear that he would fail if he was alone in his task. Many of the biggest revelations regarding trial evidence didn't come from juror #8, but other jurors who were emboldened after overcoming the patience and effort obstacles. Juror #11 is key to questioning the timeline and panic state of the young boy in coming back for the murder weapon. Juror #2 is key to bringing up the question of the stab wound. Juror #5's slum background and use of switch blade adds vital insight about the knife. Juror #11 provides a kind of coup de grace when reveals an important detail about the woman eyewitness's eyesight, and in one of the best moments in the entire film, most of the jurors work together to recreate the evidence of the old man downstairs running to his door. Not everyone in a community is good at reasoning, some are better at asking questions, some better at little details, but when a community comes together with a similar goal they can all compliment each others strengths. Even the comedian tendencies of juror #7 show glimpses of being able to bond the group through laughter when it isn't used at insulting another juror. The point here is that when the different personalities, strengths, and backgrounds of the jurors come together on the same goal of patient, effort-filled seeking of the truth - the better we find it. 

The same principle is at play in my school classroom and in our lives. The community dynamic of a classroom is key. After we watch 12 Angry Men I will put an image of all twelve jurors on the screen and we will have a mock draft of the jurors to create a classroom. As each student drafts a juror I ask them why they would make a good classmate. Most students pick the obvious jurors and stay away from the obvious jurors. To help them think more deeply I'll say something like, "Do you think a class filled with juror #8's would be good?" They reply with a no since they would just question each other all the time. The point I try to make is for my students to see how everyone in the jury room could contribute something the others couldn't. Each classroom needs serious truth seekers, but it also needs to lighten the mood and welcome different backgrounds and perspectives to fill in blind spots. Our friend circles are no different. Ask yourself, "Does my friend circle help me in my truth quest or hold me back?" A great community dynamic can bring untold insight on a truth quest, but a poor community dynamic can stop a quest dead cold.

The fourth major obstacle to seeking truth that the film points out is OVERCOMING OUR BIASES. A diverse, patient, and effort filled community can be completely undermined if they do not overcome their biases. This is probably the quality of 12 Angry Men that viewers remember the greatest thanks to some of the most intense performances of the cast. We've already called out juror #7's desire to just go to to a ballgame (in fact, he never truly comes around to the truth as he switches his view just to get it all done quicker), but the room is also filled with racism (juror #10), distraction (juror #12), sensitivity/timidness (juror #1, #2, and #5), and emotional trauma (juror #3). The screenplay and direction cleverly reveal these biases over time and weaves them into key moments of the story. In many ways, it's not until the group identifies and calls out each bias for what they are that the men exhibiting them finally change their vote to "not guilty." In a powerful scene, the entire group shuns juror #10's racist remarks with juror #4 telling him to "sit down and shut up." The group was too far into a truth quest to put up with such bias nonsense and they let him know it. In the final minutes of the film after Lee Cobb's juror #3 rants and raves about the evidence he throws his wallet on the table revealing a picture of him and his son. In a beautiful and tender moment he grabs the picture and attempts to rip it up but becomes overly emotional and cries out "not guilty." In this case his bias was his hatred for his own son that he had to confront.  Juror #8 sums it up perfectly, "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."

Aside from the initial obstacle of patience, this single largest obstacle I notice in my classroom is a kind of emotional anger at God similar to how Lee Cobb's juror #3 project his anger at his son toward the boy on trial. I've had students tell me, "Even if you could prove to me with 100% certainty that God was real and Jesus died for me, I still wouldn't believe. I don't like God, I don't like his rules." In a related way, students will listen to my answers to their questions about why God allows evil, but will respond, "That makes logical sense, but it still makes me angry and I won't get over it." Others have had tragedies happen in their lives (divorce, deaths, failures, addictions) that they blame God for and no amount of evidence or logical argument will convince them. Like juror #3, they are adamant that their doubt is factual, but in fact it is nakedly emotional. How do we respond in such ways? I think the way the jurors responded is instructive - they just sat and listened, let him rant as he needed, and kept asking for logic and evidence until juror #3 saw his anger for what it was. When it was all over, juror #8 grabs his coat, tenderly helps him put it on, and walks out with him. I think this is likely the best route in my classroom and in my community. We need to be careful to listen, to understand, and to let hurt people share their hurts. However, we must doggedly resist their control of the community. We must demand that logic and evidence pave the way, while still making a safe space to vent and reveal our anger. I think much of 12 Angry Men's power is found in this section because all of us can relate to the biases on display.

The fifth major obstacle to seeking truth that the film points out is BEING COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY. In the same way that people wrongly understand It's a Wonderful Life as being sappy and sentimental, 12 Angry Men can be wrongly understood as a film with an easy "black and white" conclusion - juror #8 saves an innocent boy from the biases of human beings. I mean, Henry Fonda is dressed all in white for goodness sakes! That's a horribly shallow reading of the film in my opinion. While I think the film does a good job casting enough doubt on the key evidences of the trial making it hard to believe the boy is guilty beyond reasonable doubt, it makes sure to point out the uncertainty of his complete innocence. About halfway through the film when the men take a break in the bathroom, juror #8 has a conversation with the blue collar juror #6 who asks him, "I'm just a workin' man. My boss does all the supposin', but I'll try one. Supposin' you talk us all out of this, and, uh, the kid really did knife his father?" The camera zooms in on Fonda's face to show how this truth really does matter to him. It's a powerful moment to rock any truth seekers confidence! Similarly, after dealing with the racism of juror #10, Fonda says to the group, "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." Is Fonda saying that truth is unknowable? No, just that there's always going to be a certain amount of uncertainty in the truth we must seek, but that shouldn't get in the way of doing the best with what we have. I think this sobering truth hangs over the entire film and that the ending never feels obliged to tell us if the boy was truly guilty or not should wreck any notion that it's a simplistic "black and white" crime film about one good guy and a bunch of idiot jurors. 12 Angry Men argues that given the stakes, we must take our time, sift through the evidence, overcome any bias, and make the best decision we can about the truth, even if we aren't 100% sure. 

I'd like to say that our truth quest to know about God's existence, the trustworthiness of the Bible, what our purpose in life is, and what happens when we die is a certainty. That's just not the case though. Like the trial in 12 Angry Men, I don't think we will ever really know the truth of our world with absolute certainty (I'm a critical realist). But Kyle, haven't you claimed to be experience God multiple times? Aren't you a Christian teacher? Yes and yes. Like the jurors in the trial, I'm on a truth quest because I know the stakes are high - my life and my destiny. To find the truth takes patience, effort, and community - which I feel I have accomplish (there's still more to give however). I feel all my experience and evidence points directly at the God of the Christian scriptures. Is it possible that I have misread the evidence or have some fatal bias? It's possible, but that's why I continue in my patience, effort, and community. However, the possibility of being wrong doesn't mean I can't tread confidently with what I strongly feel is true? Nope. It's this confident comfort with uncertainty that, for me, elevates 12 Angry Men from a simple but strong crime film about overcoming bias on a truth quest to a melancholic masterpiece that has as much in common with the book of Ecclesiastes than Proverbs.  

Like juror #8 convincing his jury room to slow down and consider the weight of the job ahead of them, I ask you, the reader, to slow down and consider the weight of the question, "Does God exist? What does he ask of me? What will happen when I die?" Have you ever really paused and given a great effort to this high stakes question or have you allowed the temporary things of this world or your community to stifle the greatest quest you can undertake? If so, then its not too late to start now.


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