Last week I spent some time with a German criminal judge — a very nice-looking one who sings beautifully. We talked a bit about the differences between the German and American legal systems, and she expressed her concern about how clever lawyers can sway juries who aren’t used to their carefully designed emotional appeals. I mentioned the movie 12 Angry Men, and she said she’d seen it several times. I remembered loving it the last time I’d seen it, decades ago, so I got it from the local library and watched it again. It’s as good as I remembered. All but a few minutes of the movie consist of people talking in a jury room, yet it kept me glued to the screen more than most big special-effects movies do. (Spoilers follow!)
Its focus is on how to judge the facts. A young man has been charged with murder, and the charge carries a mandatory death sentence. Eleven of the jurors are convinced he’s guilty, but one, played by Henry Fonda, expresses doubts. At first he seems to have little to go on, but he notices inconsistent and implausible aspects of the testimony. His main opponent is a loud-mouthed bigot, who unintentionally does as much as the skeptic to undermine the case for conviction. (None of the jurors are referred to by name, only by number.) The skeptic doesn’t crack the case all by himself, but his example encourages other jurors to think more carefully and bring up more questions about the testimony. He’s almost always calm and reasonable, seeking to raise questions rather than to dominate.
It’s a movie about reason vs. emotion, groupthink vs. the individual mind. It points out that what people say they’ve seen isn’t always the truth, even when they’re trying to be honest. It’s not just about juries and crime, but about people who support what’s popular in their group and don’t consider difficult questions. It’s also about their ability to change their minds and think more carefully when someone else sets an example. It’s refreshing to see reason overcome stubbornness, and it invites us by example to think carefully, evaluate the arguments of others, and avoid letting emotions direct our judgment.