I have to admit, there’s something about the words ‘courtroom drama’ that simply fail to excite me in any way. The law isn’t exactly the most exciting subject. Or so I thought. Despite being nearly fifty years old, 12 Angry Men managed to keep me hooked from start to finish.
It’s a very simple film. Twelve jurors hear a case and need to decide if a boy is guilty of murdering his father. They enter a room to discuss the case, and they must all come to a unanimous conclusion in order to either give him the death penalty or acquit him as innocent. When they enter, eleven of them think he is guilty seeing it as a very simple case with undeniable evidence, but Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is not so sure. Over 90 minutes, he brings more and more people to his side, as he discusses why the evidence is not sufficient to say that the boy is guilty.
To say that the acting is incredible would be an understatement. Each of the twelve cast have a large speaking role yet the characters are all very believable, if a little larger than life. However, it’s the dialogue that gives the film its appeal. The arguments are on occasion very logical and satisfying, but it’s also compelling to see how people are sometimes blinded by their emotions.
A strange aspect of the film is that we don’t hear the trial itself, so the audience can’t make up their own mind whether the kid is guilty or not. Indeed, we are never told the truth of whether the boy did indeed murder his father, suggesting that the writer Reginald Rose wanted the audience to think that the truth is less important than the fact that the jury came to its conclusion in a logical and well-balanced way. After all, without having actually witnessed the crime, it’s impossible to know the truth with 100% certainty.
Perhaps another curious aspect of the film is that in the end, all of the jury do eventually conclude that he is not guilty, suggesting that by being stubborn – and also quite logical – you can actually get your way. Despite a lot of incriminating evidence, #8 is never swayed, and one wonders at the beginning whether he knows something the others don’t, or whether he just enjoys going against the flow – I can certainly sympathise! I wonder if a parallel story is in order, where #8 makes a good case, but in the end, there is a flaw in his argument which makes him reconsider. After all, Henry Fonda’s logic seems too good to be true, he’d have to be a genius to come up with all these arguments.
In any case, it’s a wonderfully insightful and thought-provoking movie that everybody should see, especially if they are up for jury duty. This is proof that films can truly transcend time, and be enjoyed for decades after they are made.