In honor of the jury duty I just served for the past four days, I decided to revisit the definitive film about jury deliberation. This 1957 classic was directed by Sydney Lumet and stars Henry Fonda as a lone dissenter preaching reasonable doubt against 11 men who are certain the 18 year old defendant from the slums on trial is guilty of the 1st degree murder of his father. Fonda has an uphill battle trying to convince the other jurors, including the jaded and aggressive Lee J. Cobb, the pragmatic E.G. Marshall, the racist Ed Begley, the apathetic Jack Warden, and the meek Jack Klugman (TV’s Oscar Madison from ‘The Odd Couple’).
After having just gone through the experience for my first time I can tell you it’s eerily similar to the film. First of all, It’s pretty interesting how little has changed in the process over the last 53 years, with the notable exception that it’s no longer a jury of white men only. But many of the details felt the same as in the film. The trial I was on wasn’t a homicide, but rather a homeless man accused of physical and sexual assault and attempted rape of a homeless woman. There were no witnesses and virtually no hard evidence whatsoever, so it basically came down to the plaintiff’s testimony. Unfortunately the plaintiff was a homeless woman who had smoked Crack that very day, and it was basically a ‘he said, she said’ scenario. And the defendant said nothing because he chose not to testify, which looked very suspicious, but it is his Constitutional right and by law we were not allowed to hold his lack of testimony against him. Well, even though I (and everyone else) suspected he was guilty of at least something, I saw no hard evidence proving his guilt. So my initial thought was that, by law, we had to acquit because there was reasonable doubt. Fortunately, unlike Fonda, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. (I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I was.) Unfortunately, I was surprised how many of the other 11 jurors felt so strongly about the credibility of the plaintiff’s testimony that they wanted to find the defendant guilty on all charges just based on the word of a homeless Crack addict. Needless to say hours of uncomfortable debate, arguments, and attacks ensued. I preached terms like ‘presumed innocent’, ‘reasonable doubt’, and ‘burden of proof’ for hour after hour. But a few jurors were adamant about their gut feel of the plaintiff’s testimony. On the second day of deliberation, after a combined 8 hours we attempted to claim we were a hung jury, incapable of reaching a unanimous decision. But the judge wasn’t having any of that. She ordered us to continue our deliberation. None of us had any idea how long that would have to continue. Miraculously at around hour 12 we all agreed to a compromise and found the defendant guilty of 2 of the 5 counts against him. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it, but I don’t feel great. Frankly I think I let Mr. Fonda down (not to mention the defendant!) But I think we all agreed that was a better outcome than countless more days of deliberation, followed by a hung jury, followed by a mistrial, followed by a new trial with a new jury which would likely result in another deadlock. Needless to say it was not a fun experience. But that’s not what this blog is about. This blog is about films, so back to the movie review.
’12 Angry Men’ is a classic for sure. It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. All but three minutes of the film consist of just 12 men in a deliberation room. The claustrophobic nature heats up the intensity as Fonda tries one by one to win over the other jurors. Having just gone through it, I do have issues with the details Fonda concocts that weren’t made clear at the trial by the defense attorney, and how easily the other jurors accept them as fact. Trust me, it ain’t that simple to convince 11 angry men and women with just conjecture! But if you suspend your disbelief it’s an enjoyable film and at only 96 minutes it should be viewed at least once by anyone interested in the classics.
On a side note, Sydney Lumet has directed 72 films. Some of my favorites include ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Serpico’ starring Al Pacino, ‘Deathtrap’ starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, and the 2007 film ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’, which he made at the age of 83. And trust me, that ain’t no old man film. I highly recommend all of the above.
Or, if you want to see Henry Fonda on the other side of the courtroom, as a defendant who insists he has been wrongly accused, pair this film with Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Wrong Man’.
Or if you prefer more courtroom drama but with focus on a jury, I definitely recommend ‘Runaway Jury’ with Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, and Rachel Weisz.
And lastly, if you just happen to like claustrophobic films, check out the upcoming ‘Buried’ or ‘127 Hours’ that I briefly reviewed in my Toronto Film Festival entry.
Please feel free to post your thoughts.
Grade for ’12 Angry Men’: B+
Grade for the trial I just served on: C-