This episode's film is a classic in many books: Twelve Angry Men. Based on a play, the film follows 12 unnamed jurors as they debate a murder case. The films begins with 11 jurors convinced that a young boy killed his father. Only one disagrees. By the end of the film (spoiler alert), the jurors find the defendant innocent. I use this film in my public speaking classes as a discussion on argumentation and persuasion because it is such an excellent example of it. As such, I have seen this film well over a dozen times.
I’m referring of course to the 1957 version starring Henry Fonda as juror number seven, the only one who begins by assuming the boy on trial is innocent. I’ve had students remark in the past that they hate black and white films but really enjoyed this one. My kids felt the same way. They really liked this one. My second child remarked that juror #7 should really be the judge or the trial lawyer.
We had a fun talk afterwards about the justice system. This film is unique because we really don’t know if the boy killed his father or not. If this was a classic Hollywood film, we would begin by seeing the boy get framed for the murder, everyone disbelieving his story except some plucky young lawyer, throw in an odd love subplot, and the film would climax in a passionate plea to the jury for true justice. The jury would leave and then come back minutes later, announce a verdict of innocence, there would be much rejoicing, and everyone would go celebrate at a barbecue. Instead, none of that happens.
We don’t see the murder. We don’t really see the trial. Instead we begin with a very bored looking judge say that the jury must decide whether the boy is guilty or innocent and that they must all agree. The judge nonchalantly tells them how important this decision is but acts as if he’d rather be out golfing because he recites his speech in a dull monotone. Ninety percent of the film takes place in one room as the jurors debate the facts of the case. When they decide their verdict, we don’t even see the boy’s face. Instead the film ends with the various jurors walking their separate ways outside the court steps. As my eldest put it, “They just kind of blend in with the crowd. It’s as if they are just everyday people.” And that’s the point of the film. The decision doesn’t affect them. One juror even states, “We receive a summons in the mail. We decide the guilt or innocence of a man we don’t even know. It’s what makes us strong.”
I’ve been called onto jury duty once or twice but had to decline because I was still a student at the time. My kids found it interesting to hear that they might one day be called in to decide justice on some case. I warned them, however, that they don’t need to be juror number 7 and convince everyone that the defendant is innocent. Sometimes they are guilty. When I asked my kids whether they thought the boy really killed his father, they weren’t sure. The arguments were well-made but there were some holes in the story such as the murder weapon happening to be the same as a knife the boy bought that afternoon. It’s a bit of a coincidence.
What’s fun though is looking at the personalities of the different jurors. Even though they are never named, each one is distinct. You have the highschool football coach, the baseball fan, the angry father, the stock broker, the advertiser (whose job is persuasion but he himself seems unsure of it), the prejudiced man, the older gentleman, and the European watch-maker. It’s a fascinating crew of individuals. It’s also interesting to watch juror #7 work. He begins not by saying everyone is wrong, then they would get defensive. Instead he just says he himself isn’t sure of the boy’s guilt and that the boy probably is guilty but may not be so they should talk things out.
This is an excellent persuasive strategy as it gives you a foothold for collaboration instead of opposition. Henry Fonda, playing juror number seven, excellently maneuvers the group to look at each fact and consider possible alternatives. However, it is the last three jurors to convince that are the most interesting.
Aristotle argued that there are three different forms of appeals: Logos, pathos, and ethos. This is called the rhetorical triangle. Each of the last three jurors represents one of these. The first is the prejudiced man. He requires an ethos appeal. Ethos refers to quality of character. We are more likely to be convinced by someone whom we respect and deem trustworthy. What matters most to him is the character of the boy. He assumes the boy is a violent criminal because of his upbringing. He makes a speech about how dangerous poor people are and everyone in the room turns away from him. Confused, he keeps saying “Listen to me.” At which point one of the jurors, one who agrees with him that the boy is guilty, tells the prejudiced man to “Not speak again.” The prejudiced man has to be shown that just because the boy is poor and has a violent past does not mean he committee this specific crime.
Next to go is the stock-broker who is very thoughtful and likes things to make sense. He requires logos, which are logical appeals, in order to persuade him. His biggest concern was that a woman across the street saw the crime. This testimony is hard to argue unless she is lying and there didn’t seem to be any reason for it. However, one of the other jurors remarks that the woman had marks on her nose suggesting she wore glasses and if she did wear glasses, she wouldn’t have been able to see the killer clearly. The stock-broker agrees that this is logical and changes his opinion.
The last juror is the angry father played by Lee Cobb. This character is awesome. He is extremely emotional and often shouts out unintentional statements that reinforce juror #7’s arguments. It is hinted at earlier that he had a falling out with his own son and doesn’t like ungrateful children. When all of the other jurors confront him about the guilt of the boy at the end, angry father pulls out his wallet of notes and throws them on the table. Included on the pile is a picture of him with his own son who hasn’t spoken to in years. The angry father says, “There it is. That’s the whole case right there.” He then tears up the picture of him hugging his son and breaks down in tears.
This man requires pathos, or emotional appeals. He is angry at his own son. He has misplaced this anger on the boy on trial. He empathizes with the dead father and wants justice for the murdered man and also for himself. The other jurors don’t really have to say anything but they silently make this frustrated man realize why he is so angry. He finally gets his emotions in check and agrees with the other jurors as to the boy’s innocence.
Overall, 12 Angry Men is an incredible film. The story is engaging. The characters are memorable. Cinematically, it’s well crafted. The camera begins with long shots and moves closer and closer to the characters. By the conclusion, the camera is almost always showing close-ups, which reflects the intensity of the conversation and the mental debate. It is a fun, thoughtful film about persuasion, truth, and the American justice system.