What to Watch When You’re Watching at Home: Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men

Henry Fonda stands alone (for now) as he fights for truth, justice, and the American Way..

Democracy is loud. Even Plato knew this, all those centuries ago. There’s a line in The Republic where Socrates grumbles about the din of a government run by the citizenry (which is odd when you consider he wasn’t a guy who kept quiet himself.) But in this age of endless news feeds, of Rush Limbaughs and Michael Moores and Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermann’s, it sometimes seems as if we’ve gotten a bit too loud. Is there room for rational debate?

Sidney Lumet & Co. wondered this, too, and examined the question thoroughly in the brilliant 12 Angry Men.  I ask you to watch it closely, and think about whether this din, this noise, is actually what makes our country great.

The facts: a young man is accused of murdering his father with a knife. A judge, bored to distraction with this case, repeats the rules to the jury, the rules we all should know by now. Most notably: a unanimous verdict must be reached, and reasonable doubt favors the accused.

Our jurors, twelve nameless men, shuffle into the stifling jury room. It is hot. It is muggy and threatening rain. It is baseball season, and we know this because one of the jurors–a marmalade salesman–is itching for a swift resolution so he can get to Yankee Stadium. The men sit, stare out the window, make a beeline for the restroom, grumble about the heat.

“All right, let’s get started.” The foreman, a balding guy in a polo shirt and tie, gathers the men, and they decide on a quick vote. “Maybe we can get out of here,” the salesman says, shifting in his seat. Why not? Everyone knows the boy is guilty. A show of hands. Eleven guilty. One not guilty. The debate begins.

Henry Fonda plays the lone holdout, juror #8, a man in a white suit. Like the rest, we will know very few details about him. #8 has children, and he’s an architect. Most of all, he believes in Democracy.

For #8 wants to talk. That’s all at first. He’s troubled, and he believes that a man, any man, no matter how guilty they may seem, deserves at least the courtesy of talk, of debate.  He begins slowly, picking apart the little details revealed in the case. First, he tries a few emotional appeals: the boy is from a broken home, probably had a lousy public defender. Then he looks at the motive: why would this kid kill his father? He’s been beaten every day, why would he stab his old man? Why would he leave the knife? These things trouble him, and they should trouble the rest of the jury.

Of course, the rest of the jury thinks he’s a bleeding-heart. Juror #3, played by my favorite bellicose character actor Lee J. Cobb, actually calls Fonda a bleeding-heart. Juror #7, the marmalade salesman played by Jack Warden, is frustrated, as he just wants to get the hell out of there. Juror #10, an inveterate racist played by Ed Begley, throws up his hands. You don’t give “these people” an inch, for they’ll take a mile, the mile being murder. The others? They’re simply baffled.

After a few minutes of seemingly pointless debate, Fonda concedes. “If the vote is still 11-1, I’ll vote ‘guilty’.” But the new vote must be by secret ballot. The counting begins. And now it is 10-2.

Slowly but surely the evidence is gone over, piece by piece and minute by minute, until we know the case inside and out. 10-2 becomes 9-3, then 8-4, 6-6, and then, 9-3 in favor of acquittal. With each vote, Lumet has brought you to the point of emotional frenzy, the way you get when you’re arguing about something you care for passionately.

Fonda leads the charge, but he’s not alone: Joseph Sweeney’s Juror #9, basically the old man in the group, brings up vital information, including a significant observation that unnerves and finally convinces one of the last holdouts. Other jurors join in, not only changing their vote but looking at evidence differently, adding to the discussion, participating.

Each man’s character is revealed in his reaction to these discoveries, and we learn who they are, even as we never know their names: Juror #5, Jack Klugman, from the wrong side of the tracks, a reluctant expert on switchblade technique. Martin Balsam as the foreman, Juror #1, a frustrated football coach whose sheepish change of vote never fails to bring tears to my eyes (it’s the moment when you really sense a momentum switch.) The more modest men: Jurors #2, 6, 11, and 12, a bank clerk, a painter, an immigrant watchmaker, and an advertising man, solidly played by John Fiedler, Edward Binns, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber, four actors whose careers went… where? (At least Fiedler became the voice of Winnie the Pooh.) Juror #4, perhaps the most formidable, E. G. Marshall’s cool financier.

In the center of all this is Fonda’s Juror #8, and Lee J. Cobb’s Juror #3, the extremes of reason and unreason, quiet and noise.

Let’s face it: 12 Angry Men is liberal propaganda. Fonda, who helped produce, and Lumet, who both produced and directed, were unrepentant liberals. But this is no tune to a leftist beat–in fact, Fonda’s emotional appeals are often shown to be wrong-headed. On numerous occasions were reminded that there is, in fact, a very real chance that this young man in question is guilty.

12 Angry Men is about a process. The process of debating and examining facts, and trying to do so in as unemotional and unprejudiced manner as possible when sitting on a jury, perhaps the most significant part of this democracy. Trying to rise above prejudice, above hate, is the goal, and it’s a difficult one.

I first saw 12 Angry Men in a high school social studies class in Mt. Pleasant, MI, and was surprised to hear James Parrish had also seen it for the first time in his high school social studies class in South Johnston High School in North Carolina.

This is appropriate, I think, because the film is one of the few that is, despite its liberal background, urging us to be kind to one another and listen, for God’s sake. It is a great lesson in working together, in listening (oh, boy, do teachers wish their students listened.) At times it can be a bit heavy-handed–Ed Begley’s racist is the one sour note, a one-sided character whose outbursts often bring the proceedings to a halt. But what’s important here truly isn’t whether the kid is poor, looks sad, or came from a broken home. No, the question here is whether the evidence is enough to sentence him to die. And in the course of the film you see that it is, indeed, not enough. Not nearly enough.

In some respects, Lumet has done his work too well: I’d be curious to hear female readers’ reaction to 12 Angry Men. My wife, for instance hated it. She agreed that it was brilliant, that the acting and direction were great, that it was a clarion call to reason. “But I can’t be in a room with these bastards for 90 minutes,” she admitted, and two other women I know felt the same way. Sadly, at the time most juries were made up of men.

But I digress. 12 Angry Men does it right, in part because it is not interested in vilifying anyone (except the racist.) It’s significant that Lee J. Cobb’s enraged father, the last hold-out, is not a right-wing jerk, not a racist, but a man deeply troubled by his relationship with his errant son. His emotions thoroughly fog his ability to look at facts.

12 Angry Men shows us that this mish-mash still works. Shallow idiots like Juror #7, changing their vote so they can get to a baseball game, still count, as do immigrants, as do racists, as do the poor and the rich. Tea parties, anti-war rallies, Obama and Bush conspiracy theorists–we hear it all nowadays, every television pundit a Lee J. Cobb pacing and raging like a bear in a cage. But that’s a part of the fabric. Think of 12 Angry Men writ large: We need them to get to that verdict. That verdict is democracy.

Over fifty years ago, on a hot day, 12 disparate men gathered in a stuffy little room to discuss the fate of a young man accused of murder. 90 minutes later, through rants, whispers, entreaties, clenched teeth, accusations and alliances, a verdict was reached. The machine of democracy, less a factory than a precision watch, its tiny gears grinding on in little rooms across the country, then as now, ran smoothly. 12 Angry Men is an examination of one of those many gears. Watch it and marvel.

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One Response to What to Watch When You’re Watching at Home: Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    Nice job. I like the way you tie it to today’s cacophony of loud and angry voices, when it comes to debating politics.

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