Twelve Angry Men
by Becky Pearson
The film Twelve Angry Men is touted as a rare representation of jury room deliberations and its complexities. While it is true that Twelve Angry Men was one of the first films to venture into the jury room, this fact alone is not enough to win me over. There seems to be a common perception that if a movie is the first of its kind, it must be good. However, while watching Twelve Angry Men, I realized that the film is atrociously outdated and overdramatized. I was ready to turn it off within the first thirty minutes.
While this criticism may seem harsh, there are several reasons I feel it is deserved. I will concede that the director effectively used the confined space of the jury room plus the oppressive heat to evoke a feeling of discomfort, which emphasized the tension of the jurors. But this subtle effect was completely overshadowed by the melodrama that ensues. Granted, this film was made in the mid-1950s when acting was approached in a different way than today, but the yelling among the jurors was not only distracting, it was downright irritating. Perhaps the director was trying to show the calmness of Henry Fonda compared to the volatile Lee J. Cobb, but it didnt work for me. In the end, I only felt that the interactions among the jurors didnt ring true. While one student in class pointed out that juries can be heated, and I agree that jury members shouting at each other probably is common, I still dont believe that complete strangers would use such personal attacks as seen in the movie.
This leads me to my second reason for not liking Twelve Angry Men. I might have been able to ignore the overacting, but I couldnt ignore the schmaltzy ending. Lee J. Cobb spends the whole movie berating other jurors and swearing that the defendant is guilty. We finally discover that he is the sole hold-out because he is trying to punish his own son in some weird Freudian way. The end culminates with Cobb dramatically tearing up his a picture of his son and having a complete breakdown on the jury room table. I found the entire sequence so unbelievable that it detracted significantly from the rest of the film. Many people may feel that it is impossible for a juror to leave his or her personal experiences/baggage at the door. I agree. Peoples experiences do shape how they view different situations. However, I do not believe that Cobb=s personal fury at his son would so blind him that he would be unable to recognize contrary evidence when that evidence was presented. While it is true that people have a hard time changing their preconceived views, I couldnt swallow that Cobb was unable to distinguish between his own son and the defendant.
My final reason for disliking the film was the lack of any women or minorities on the jury. I dont know if these groups were regularly represented on juries in the 1950s, but their absence is the primary reason I think this film is outdated. While Twelve Angry Men may have been instructive on jury deliberations in the >50s, it has no bearing on juries today. The presence of women and minorities would have changed the entire interaction among the jurors. The underlying theme of the film is that men are volatile and when angered, fly off the handle. Having women and minorities present certainly would have changed this dynamic. The men probably would have felt more inhibited yelling in front of or at women, and the racial prejudices that were blatant in the film would have been directed at the minority jurors. These observations are purely from a 1950s view, and Im sure would be very different with a jury today (women are probably more vocal; men are probably less inhibited in the presence of women/minorities; and racial prejudice, while still alive and well, would be better hidden). While this complaint may seem relatively minor, the absence of these groups from the jury seriously dates the film.
For me, watching an old film that seems to have little if any modern relevance renders the film obsolete. I cant consider a film to be a "classic" if it doesnt continue to have some application over time. When I watch Alfred Hitchcock films, I dont have this problem. Take Rear Window, for instance. There are certainly elements of that film which are outdated, such as some of the interactions among men and women, but the key difference is that those elements dont distract me from the overall film. Rear Window is just as suspenseful and scary today as it was when it was first released. It truly is a "classic" film because it still scares an audience today without being overshadowed by its outdated elements.
Despite my criticisms of Twelve Angry Men, there was an element of the film I did like. The scene where the old man admits that he changed his vote because he felt that Henry Fonda=s courage to stand up against the other jurors deserved some consideration. That was very powerful. I did feel that this type of dynamic among jurors is probably very common today. When a majority of jurors are in agreement against another juror, often it is easier for the juror to simply agree rather than stand up against the majority. Twelve Angry Men did portray effectively the difficulty of being on the minority side, and the importance of voicing that opinion in order for the jury system to work.
While this element of the film did work for me, it wasnt enough to overcome the elements of the film I didnt like. I did have a nagging feeling while watching Twelve Angry Men that I should like it simply because it is considered a "classic." However, to give this film a glowing review because it is a "classic" would be the same as accepting the assumption put forth in Twelve Angry Men: the jury reached the correct verdict by acquitting the defendant. Twelve Angry Men was the first film of its kind to show the jury system at work, and for that reason it is interesting to watch. However, looking at the film today, it just doesnt stand up to the test of time.
Posted April 2000