The script was written by Reginald Rose, a lawyer’s son inspired by his own jury service (in a manslaughter case in New York City), and by his opposition to McCarthyism. A shorter form of Rose’s drama had been televised live in 1954 on Studio One; and a version had been performed as a stage play the following year.
Sequestered in a small and sweltering room as a storm sweeps in, twelve men—portrayed by actors including Henry Fonda (who co-produced the movie with Rose), Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, and Jack Klugman—attempt to reach a verdict in the case of a young man accused of having stabbed his father.
They have been instructed that a guilty or a not-guilty verdict on the single charge, murder in the first degree (i.e., premeditated murder), must be unanimous; and that a verdict of guilt will result in the defendant’s execution. (The judge and the defendant appear briefly at the beginning of the movie, but in the stage script neither is visible to the audience.)
To accentuate the jurors’ close quarters, and to heighten the increasing sense of confinement during the ninety real-time minutes of their interaction, Lumet “slowly shifted[ed] to longer lenses,” and “shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level.”
Without including spoilers, it can be said that the drama’s themes include:
● The degree to which each juror has in fact listened to the judge’s instructions, to the lawyers, to the witnesses, and, perhaps most importantly, to his colleagues.
● The ways in which reasonable people, acting in good faith, can disagree.
● Peer pressure and “groupthink”; and the courage, caution, and possible heroism of someone who questions and/or opposes the majority’s opinion.
● Depersonalization. Seated at the jury table in the order of their juror numbers, the men don’t know each other’s names, but occasionally refer to one another as “that gentleman.”
● Individuality, and Diversity. Each juror figuratively (and, in one show-stopping moment, literally) brings something to the table, as their varying careers, experiences, prejudices, sympathies, and relative maturity—which are gradually, and sometimes inadvertently, revealed—inform their deliberations.
● The respect, or disrespect, shown by the various jurors to each other, to the defendant and to his (unspecified) demographic group, and to the jury process itself. (One juror mocks another: “What are you being so polite about?” The response: “For the same reason you’re not—it’s the way I was brought up.”)
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. reportedly described the Supreme Court as “nine scorpions in a bottle.” The dispositions, distractions, engagement, and self-restraint of the dozen jurors vary widely, and change significantly over the course of their work.
● Individual jurors’ commitment to continuing deliberations, which are not subject to any deadline or other time constraints, rather than reporting to the judge that the group cannot reach a unanimous verdict.
● The willingness and responsibility of jurors to explain their own positions when questioned or challenged, to carefully evaluate the arguments of others, and to vote in good faith rather than for the sake of expediency.
● The men’s assessment of the incomplete information presented at trial (whose details they occasionally, sometimes after consulting notes, recall differently), and of the witnesses’ appearance, character, and credibility.
● The deductive prowess of different jurors, and the degree to which a juror can and should independently investigate issues and collect evidence. (The second issue, not presented as particularly controversial or rule-breaking in the movie, is certainly addressed by current jury instructions, especially with regard to jurors’ conducting their own online research.)
● The physical evidence requested by the jurors through the court officer, and its relevance to their reconstruction of events.
● The all-important question of whether the prosecution has met its burden of proof by demonstrating the defendant’s guilt beyond a “reasonable doubt” (a term that is never detailed or defined in the jurors’ discussions).
● The inherent imprecision of the jury’s considerations of possibilities and probabilities:
-In this context, are objectivity and certainty themselves suspect? One juror fumes, “I’m sick and tired of ‘the facts.’ You can twist them any way you want!” At another point, recalling one part of the trial presentation, another juror states, “I began to get a peculiar feeling—I mean, nothing is that positive!”
-Is is ever appropriate to answer another juror’s question with, “I don’t know”?
-Might a verdict of guilt condemn to death a man who’s actually innocent? Alternatively, could a not-guilty verdict free a murderer, who might well kill again? And (although this is not specifically the jury’s concern), if the defendant didn’t murder the victim, who did, and why?
● The jurors’ reflections on the possible unprofessionalism of the prosecutor and of defense counsel (though not of the judge)—and on the degree to which those complicate the jury’s job.
● The direct and indirect methods of persuasion and leadership exercised by the foreman and the other jurors—including appeals to reason, emotions, and biases—and the sometimes-delicate dances of dominance, deference, and decorum within various permutations of the jurors, and among the group as whole.
Sixty-six years ago, a few days before the release of the movie, Rose wrote in The New York Times, “Much of the intricate business of living is singled out and held up for scrutiny in this jury room, I feel. For instance, the alliances formed for purely intellectual reasons and those formed for emotional reasons alone remind us of larger and more important alliances that we can see at every turn in our newspapers, locally, nationally, internationally.”
● The jurors’ reaching agreement on the internal governance of their deliberations, such as their seating, choice of foreman, order and form of discussions, and moments and methods of voting.
● The differing roles of voting by secret ballot, by voice, and by a show of hands.
● The democratic nature of jury selection and deliberations.
In 2010, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, invited to select a movie to be screened at the Fordham University School of Law’s Film Festival, chose Twelve Angry Men.
Justice Sotomayor told the audience that, around the time she began college, she had been impressed by the way in which one juror, presented as having emigrated to the United States, championed the jury system: “It sold me that I was on the right path. . . . This movie continued to ring the chords within me.”
However, she also noted that earlier in her career, she had cautioned jurors that the movie’s depiction of deliberations was unrealistic: “There was an awful lot of speculation.”
Justice Sotomayor added that, as reflected by the jurors’ discussions, both the prosecution and the defense had “failed in their duties.”
According to Joan Biskupic’s Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice (2014), the Justice said, recalling scathing references by one of the movie’s jurors to “’those people,’” “You have to flinch. . . Those [remarks] are personal. They were personal when I saw it the first time. I had heard about ‘those people’ in my life so often.”
The most clear-headed of Reginald Rose’s characters coolly responded to that juror’s eruption of bigotry (the script’s expanded version of which is even more extreme and toxic): “It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth.”
So it could be said that Rose’s writing, and Lumet’s staging and photography, of Twelve Angry Men, and of that scene in particular, also dramatically depict what should, if heard, not be listened to.