The plot is disarmingly simple; twelve white male jurors must deliver a verdict that will seal the fate of an underprivileged youth on trial for the murder of his father. With the knowledge that a guilty verdict ensures a death penalty, these men from disparate backgrounds and conflicting beliefs must come to a unanimous decision on what is said to be the hottest day of the year. In what is perceived to be an open-and-shut case – with the judge reading out proceedings in a blasé and almost tedious manner – eleven out of twelve seem unwaveringly assured of the boy’s guilt. However, one juror insists on adhering to the concept of reasonable doubt in an attempt to explore how distorted facts, possibilities of unreliable witnesses and personal prejudice can potentially lead to a travesty of justice.
When a preliminary vote provokes incredulous reactions to Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) and his acknowledgement of the overwhelming evidence contradicting his “not guilty” verdict, he calmly contends that they must talk before they sentence the young man to death. He essentially argues that the importance of considering the possibilities cannot be overstated or dismissed for the sake unburdening the jury on a day where they would rather be anywhere else. This disciplined objectivity duly undermines many factors of the case and exposes certain jurors’ personal biases in promoting the importance of questioning before concluding. Juror 8 genuinely doesn’t know if the defendant is guilty or not, but sees it as the duty of all twelve men to explore the possibilities and entertain the notion of reasonable doubt to the very end – not least when it comes to a matter of life and death. A decision with such gravity should never be dealt with via flippant or cynical conclusions.
The film’s simplicity in setting, with the majority of the running time taking place solely within the jury room, coupled with Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, instils an increasing sense of claustrophobia whilst the drama of discussion takes centre stage. Though the dialogue becomes heated and tempers run high, the fundamental movement of the narrative remains both contained and faithful to the concept of discourse and deliberation. The carefully staged close-ups and use of low angles cater to this in highlighting malleable character motivation as the influence of Fonda’s dialogue gradually spreads.
Lumet’s previous directorial experience at the time had been limited to television, yet a no-frills approach and restraint for his first feature film ultimately do justice to the subject matter. In an age where many films released in colour and widescreen formats dominated the box office, 12 Angry Men seemed modestly unburdened by its production limitations whilst managing to be cinematic largely through the power of talking. Nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay, it seems that its importance transcended contemporary box office success in establishing a timeless legacy.
Though the 35mm experience was the most immersive, I first saw the film on a streaming service and was completely spellbound by it. With an overwhelming selection of instantly accessible films to choose from, I often spend too much time deliberating over what to commit to. The film’s legacy and 96-minute running time ultimately prevailed in this decision making process, yet I quite quickly found myself to be fully immersed in the tension, pacing and heartbreaking performances. This is a masterclass in what disciplined and minimal storytelling can achieve, regardless of how you see it.
The film’s lasting significance seems particularly pertinent in an age where the prominence of twenty-four-hour news cycles and social media have arguably resulted in an onslaught of closed social bubbles, the reaffirmation of personal prejudice and unhindered sharing of misinformation. In this context, 12 Angry Men suitably puts these issues into a literal chatroom with universal stakes that I feel will always encourage discussion and self-reflection.