Wednesday, October 15, 2014

AFI Top 100: #87 "12 Angry Men"

The Jurors of 12 Angry Men (1957)

Admittedly, last week was a rough one. I was momentarily tempted to skip right over it, straight to this week's film: #87 on the AFI Top 100, 12 Angry Men. One of my favorites on the list so far, I'd been gifted the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray for Christmas from my brother-in-law. Knowing I was going to eventually launch this "AFI club," I held off on watching it by myself. It's inaugural viewing should be in front of the largest group I could gather.

12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a remarkable ensemble piece. Originally, this story was a 1954 television play, adapted slightly for the stage in 1955, and then for the big screen (not to mention, scoring significantly more A-list actors). Sometimes seen today with the title 12 Angry Jurors, in order to incorporate female talent, it is a story that has remained a popular tale for half a century.

The plot could not be simpler: twelve jurors in a seemingly "open and shut" first degree murder trial are sent to deliberate until a verdict can be reached. It must be unanimous, because the defendant will automatically receive the death penalty given a guilty verdict, and one doubtful juror stands in the way of all the others getting on with their lives.

And that's it. The entire film (save the opening and closing scenes) takes place in the tight confines of a sweltering jury room. For roughly 90 minutes, we witness these men going back and forth, many unable to shield their disdain for the Spanish-American defendant from the slums—although, to be honest, you could replace the defendant with any racial minority, and it wouldn't change a single detail or line in the script.

The film is unique in its simplicity. The viewer does not know any juror by name; instead, they are known by their Juror numbers—the closing credits list them not by their star power, but by their numbers, as well.

Our dissenting juror is Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda). The beauty of his role, and the progression of the story, is that he doesn't vote "Not Guilty" because he has a compelling argument—he just has reasonable doubt. The evidence is overwhelming, and from the start, the audience struggles to believe that anyone could vote in favor of acquittal. The script is so tight, and the sequencing so organic, there is no doubt you are in this room with these men, enduring this frustrating experience alongside them.

The revelations that cast a shadow of doubt on the stalwart "Guilty" voters are half the fun of the film. During this time, you learn exactly who these people are—they come from different places, grew up in different decades, and have different views on family, career, and the world. None of these men would associate with each other outside of this room. But they are stuck here, and together must come to an impossible agreement.

Everyone delivers an impeccable performance. Fonda might be the star, and the juror we would all want fighting for us if we were on trial—but every man has something to offer. I particularly love Lee J. Cobb as Juror #3; he is despicable in so many ways, while still being the most tragic. Jack Klugman (Juror #5) might be the man I relate to most; and of course, the jury's sweet spot is Joseph Sweeney (Juror #9), who, as the oldest juror in the bunch, completely changes the course of the deliberation. He's also adorably old.

It's hard to name names in an ensemble such as this. I could go on and on about the prejudices of Juror #10 or the obliviousness of Juror #12, but it's not really the point of the movie. The film is meant to showcase the power given to juries of our peers, and how what we bring into the jury room can change the course of a person's life. It is a heavy responsibility; and 12 Angry Men does a remarkable and succinct job in proclaiming that one person truly can make a difference.

Many comment on this movie being strangely devoid of women (though I can't help but notice the Women's Restroom in the back of the room). It's notable that they are all men, and it can't be ignored; but it's also a feature easily corrected in future takes on the story. I've never had an issue with it, because during this time period, it makes complete sense. It's worth noting that this may be the film with the most homages; just look at this list, and you'll probably be pretty surprised by how many TV episodes you've seen that use 12 Angry Men's exact plot devices.

Lumet directed a spectacular and influential movie. So far on this epic list, it's got the tightest script, the most succinct character motivations, and the clearest objectives (maybe just ahead of Toy Story). It is a wonderful, near-perfect film; perhaps this is due to its theatrical style, or maybe it's because it speaks to us on a granular and personal level. That we all would hope if it were our future on the line, there would be one dissenter out there willing to risk their necks for us.

Rating:  ★★★★½ / 5 stars

Check back next week for #86 on the list, Platoon — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could be watching along, too, but I'm not sure how to get the films! Haha, lame! I have seen this one (although it's been so long that I'm not sure when), but now I want to re-watch.


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