Updated: Jun 14
12 ANGRY MEN Twelve jurors are set the task to reach a verdict on a teenage Hispanic boy who has just been tried for the murder of his father, with a guilty verdict sending him to the electric chair. There must be a unanimous verdict on a capital case. The jury foreman (Juror ONE - no character is named) asks for a preliminary vote: ONE - . . . nine . . . ten . . . eleven . . . That’s eleven for guilty. Okay. Not guilty? (EIGHT’s hand is raised.) One. Right. Okay. Eleven to one, guilty. Now we know where we are. THREE - Somebody’s in left field. (To EIGHT) You think he’s not guilty? EIGHT (quietly) - I don’t know. (Filmed in 1957, EIGHT is played by Henry Fonda. If he’s before your time or outside your reference points, think Tom Hanks - the level-headed epitome of upstanding values. “It’s not so easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”) The foreman invites each of the other jurors to say why they think ‘guilty’. They summarize the evidence presented in court, highlight the salient facts, and explain how the accused had committed the crime. At the end of the set-up, EIGHT observes that everyone in the room sounds so positive. But what if they’re wrong? “People make mistakes.” Over the next 90 minutes, each of the prosecution pillars are challenged, and begin to crumble. Nothing is proved, leaving each juror with an insight of reasonable doubt. The unanimous conclusion: not guilty. 12 Angry Men (12AM) has outstanding ensemble acting, dramatic lighting, exciting camera angles, all shot in one small room. It is a compact morality story showing the strength of the jury system. It wrings intensity out of the process usually missed by courtroom dramas (Anatomy of a Murder, A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Verdict). So I urge you to (re)watch 12AM - because what it’s about is not what it’s about. As New York columnist and essayist Adam Gopnik says: “(Writing) should have a surface object and a hidden subject.” All of the description of 12AM above is the surface object. The hidden heart of 12AM is how we receive personal signals that are given to us, how we interpret and then respond. It resonates across a global organization, a large office, a small team or a one-to-one relationship. While there are a dozen characters in a single room, hidden beneath the surface are vignettes - individual scenes - of two or three people, learning something about the drivers and motivators of each other.
Drivers that create their perception of reality. Consider short statements from Juror SEVEN that come in close succession: SEVEN - What, just because I voted fast? I think the guy’s guilty. You couldn’t change my mind if you talked for a hundred years. / SEVEN - Now wait a second. What are you, the guy’s lawyer? / SEVEN - Just a minute. Some of us’ve got better things to do than sit around a jury room. Three comments, each with a reference to time (hundred years, a second, a minute). And we learn later that he has two tickets to the evening baseball game. His reality is deadline driven, he has more important things (for him) to do this evening, and he wants everyone to be clear about his priority - but not saying it directly. In how many meetings have you been in where you know that’s happening beneath the surface, but it’s not been revealed? Here’s Juror TWO, with a very different approach: TWO - Oh. Well … (Long pause) I just think he’s guilty. I thought it was obvious. I mean nobody proved otherwise. / TWO - Well, I was going to say— / TWO - Anybody … want a cough … drop? That’s all he says in the first half of the film. He’s almost invisible, the quiet one who might have much to say but lacks the confidence or perhaps the skill to say it. Perhaps he wants to get out quickly, but for quite different reasons. Sometimes when we do speak we say things that we don’t mean. When the jury discusses the statement of a key witness: THREE - Look, the old man heard the kid yell, “I’m gonna kill you.” EIGHT - …supposing he really did hear it? This phrase: how many times has each of you used it? Probably hundreds. “If you do that once more junior, I’m going to murder you.” “Come on, Rocky, kill him!” We say it every day. This doesn’t mean that we’re going to kill someone. Later in the heat of the debate, THREE is so irate that he lunges at EIGHT, but is caught by two of the jurors and held. He struggles as EIGHT watches calmly. THREE (screaming) -** Let me go! I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him! EIGHT - You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?
Choice of language - especially verbs and adjectives - can change the meaning of an event to reinforce the teller’s interpretation. Here’s an early exchange as they recall the narrative told in the courtroom: FOUR - The boy admits going out of his house at eight o’clock after being slapped by his father. EIGHT - Or punched. FOUR - Yes… punched. And later, during another exchange about the aging witness’s version: FIVE - Did the old man say he ran to the door? SEVEN - Ran. Walked. What’s the difference? He got there. FIVE - I don’t remember what he said. But I don’t see how he could run. Slapped or punched? Ran or walked? Notice how FIVE tries to get greater clarity of events and descriptions by mixing his senses: “I don’t *see* how he could run.” Offering the suggestion of seeing some circumstances, an event, a decision or a person brings it to life, giving the listener the chance to align with another’s version of reality:
NINE - It’s just that I looked at him for a very long time. The seam of his jacket was split under the arm. Did you notice that? He was a very old man with a torn jacket, and he carried two canes. I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition — his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once. This is very important. THREE - Well, that’s the most fantastic story I’ve ever heard. How can you make up a thing like that? What do you know about it? NINE (low) - I speak from experience. But sometimes, no matter how thoughtful and resourceful you try to be, the other person just doesn’t want to listen. A fixed point of view was brought in, and an intention to hold onto it:
TEN - I don’t understand you people. How can you believe this kid is innocent? Look, you know how those people lie. I don’t have to tell you. They don’t know what truth is. And lemme tell you, they don’t need any real big reason to kill someone either. You know, they get drunk, and bang, someone’s lying in the gutter. Nobody’s blaming them. That’s how they are. You know what I mean? Violent! Human life don’t mean as much to them as it does to us… Look, these people are drinking and fighting all the time, and if somebody gets killed, so somebody gets killed. They don’t care. Oh sure, there are some good things about them, too. Look, I’m the first to say that. I’ve known a few who were pretty decent, but that’s the exception. Most of them, it’s like they have no feelings. They can do anything. As 12AM Juror EIGHT says: “Personal prejudices always obscure the truth.” Of course, I’m bringing my prejudices to the film. You may take a very different perspective on the characters on screen (starting with an all male cast and very little ethnic mix.) We all project all the time. 12AM is a very condensed, tightly-structured drama. The dialogue has been honed so that it sounds natural while being delivered at pace, to keep the narrative propelled. Life is different. Organizations are messier; meetings with agendas can still be unstructured. The most innocent phrase can touch a raw nerve. Straightforward experience can be re-worked to fit a personal story. Sometimes we tune in, and have the courage to name the truth. Sometimes we hear, but steer clear of the potential conflict. And most of the time, we’re so busy listening to our own tape internally, we miss the invaluable clues and the chance to connect. The surface object of 12 Angry Men is a jury; the hidden subject is us.
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