Film: 12 Angry Men
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Sydney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it
Ignorance Rating*: Pending
"I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anyone will ever really know."
Although 12 Angry Men was made in the 50s, it never feels like a 50s movie. Sure, the star power is there; Henry Fonda had been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood since the 30s. And the look is right; the crisp black and white cinematography and the abundant closeups fit right in with the movies of the age. But this movie, directed by the very young Sydney Lumet, feels if anything even more progressive in its politics than something like In the Heat of the Night. And it's setup is by 50s standards practically avant-garde: the movie plays out in real time, confined almost entirely to one room, as 12 men try to work through the facts of a murder case and overcome their own prejudices to get to the truth. It's the setup for a play or TV movie (both of which it was first) but is filmed and acted so well that it seems experimental, not uncinematic.
The movie takes place during a vicious heat wave, as a Puerto Rican youth is accused of murder and 12 middle-class white men have to decide his fate. 11 of the men are adamant that the young man is guilty, several of them arguing that "you know how they are" and of course one of "them" committed the murder. Only Juror #10, Henry Fonda, has some reasonable doubt. As you probably know by now, the inimitable Mr. Fonda coaxes and wheedles the other 11, breaking down the prosecution's case, noting the defense attorney's indifference, and piece by piece dismantling his colleague's assumptions about the case and their prejudices. Some are receptive to this, some aren't, and violence is threatened more than once.
By emphasizing the notion of "reasonable doubt," this movie becomes more than just an endorsement of the American justice system and a diatribe against racism and closemindedness. 12 Angry Men is also meditation on truth and uncertainty. Fonda reminds the jurors over and over again that none of them know what happened, that all they can do is approximate the truth, and that what matters is not proving guilt or innocence but knowing the limits of truth.
The film thus becomes a fantasy, in which the dangerous prospect of nihilism is harnessed by the American legal system to ensure justice is done. It's hard to know whether the jury's reasoning and their definition of reasonable doubt would allow any murderer to be convicted. But for me at least, it's a worthy fantasy: a reminder that, in a country that retains the death penalty, convicting someone of Murder One is an irrevocable decision that will permanently end a life. No one can, or should, ever be certain enough to take human life, which I think is ultimately the message of this ultimate message picture. It's not about the young man being innocent, or about a nihilistic belief that we'll never be able to ascertain the truth about anything. It's that a justice system that is willing to take a life must do so knowing that the truth is provisional, and that any worthy human being would shy from such a prospect. As such, 12 Angry Men should be what it probably already is: one of the foundational documents of how our modern justice system should and can work.
*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.