by Michael Beyer, Alumnus of Communication & English Department --
Jury duty is oft regarded as a tedious chore for those called to do it. It disrupts their lives, takes too long, and interferes with plans. Many want to get it over with as soon as possible. Yet what if one stubborn juror’s “not guilty” vote on what appears to be a clear-cut murder case was the only thing keeping you from relaxing at home on a hot day? 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s 1957 movie adaptation of a play by the same name, explores this scenario, offering insight into the effectiveness of an open debate. 12 Angry Men’s theme of open communication creates a compelling argument for the marketplace of ideas metaphor of First Amendment rights.
In 12 Angry Men, a destitute, 18-year-old teen is accused of murdering his father. There are two critical witnesses, one of who saw the murder as it happened. The witnesses testified that the teen shouted “I’m gonna kill ya” at the top of his lungs before doing the deed. Yet even with all this evidence, the protagonist, Juror 8 (played by Academy Award winner Henry Fonda) votes “not guilty,” much to the ire of his fellow jurors. One by one, each juror argues with Juror 8 multiple times, bringing up evidence from the trial and personal biases in a bid to convince him the teen is guilty.
A major theme of the film is, unsurprisingly, the value of open communication. Juror 8 must pull teeth with each juror to even open a discussion, as they are dead set on ending the debate and going home as quickly as possible. This is where the marketplace of ideas comes in. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ruled that the First Amendment should act as an open market, allowing both helpful and unhelpful speech to thrive. This creates open discussion and allows for the people to choose one opinion over another. One of the biggest critiques brought against the marketplace of ideas metaphor is that it permits the spread of pointless, hurtful speech.
This critique can be seen in 12 Angry Men; the film is not a blind glorification of the metaphor, or of communication. By having an open debate, each juror is free to express their opinions, their biases, and even completely irrelevant information. Juror 12 brags about his role in coming up with slogans for the company he works for. A baseball game is on the forefront of Juror 7’s mind instead of the murder case. Since he grew up in a slum like the defendant did, Juror 5 can’t seem to keep his sensitive feelings out of the discussion. Worse, Juror 10 shouts classist remarks, declaring that poor people “Don’t need a big reason to kill someone… That’s the way they are by nature… Human life don’t mean as much to them as it does to us.” Juror 3, the biggest fighter against the “not guilty” verdict, projects his personal feelings towards his wayward son onto the defendant, turning Juror 3 into a malevolent man blinded by rage.
These points of discussions have nothing to do with the trial, and in the case of the classist remarks, are straight up offensive. Yet this is 12 Angry Men‘s way of depicting an accurate open discussion. Since Juror 8 pushes for everyone to share their arguments, both meaningful and unmeaningful points are discussed. Every character is unique, and they each bring something different to the table. Letting each of them argue allows for the jury to form a satisfying, conclusive decision with thoroughly thought-out reasoning. Without the marketplace of ideas allowing the free exchange of their thoughts, the jury may have become a hung jury.
The directing of Sidney Lumet brings Reginald Rose’s play to life and fills it with palpable tension. The debate room is swelteringly hot. The discussion “needs” to finish in an hour or else Juror 7 will miss a baseball game. The enthralled yells of the men seem up close and personal in such a small space. These tiny details elevate tension, making it appear as though any one of the men is liable to snap at any moment. Elevating that tension is the fact the movie plays out as one, long scene. There are no meanwhiles, no time skips. This gives the movie a unique sense of flow. Effective camera work with subtle zooms during monologues, sweeping camera pans whenever the jurors retake votes, and dramatic closeups when jurors get in each other’s faces help keep one’s attention during the elongated scene.
Several stand-out performances enforce this tension as well. Henry Fonda’s empathetic expressions and emphatic explanations elevate Juror 8 into an engrossing character. Jack Warden, who plays Juror 7, is always fidgeting and wiping down his face, showing how the juror cannot help but be distracted during the proceedings. Juror 3, played by Lee J. Cobb, constantly explodes with emotion throughout the discussion. Each explosion is convincing and powerful thanks to Cobb’s authentic body language and expressions.
With a unique premise, an effective casting, and a powerful message, 12 Angry Men is an engrossing film that will seize audiences’ attention. While a bit idealistic in its conclusion, the fact every juror had the opportunity to argue makes it satisfying. This satisfaction helps depict the marketplace of ideas metaphor as a powerful option for courts to reference when interpreting the First Amendment. There’s no hanged jury on this one; Twelve Angry Men brings a creative take on crime drama that fans of the genre will find captivating.