Sunday, January 18, 2004

Movie Review: 12 Angry Men 

I tend to watch newer movies. I tend to especially like movies from the 1990s, for some reason. I don't know why, really, except to say that I am, like all others, a child of my times, I suppose.

Now I like to think of myself as someone with transcendent values, who can see the universal truths in the art of mankind, but the fact that I prefer art forms developed when I was between the ages of 16-~now, sort of puts the lie to my fantasy about myself, and that's a little disturbing. But honesty with oneself is a good thing, I know. Still, all that being said, I try to step outside of the world I know best and see how others have reacted to the fundamental problems.

I think there is a consistent percentage of examples of whatever art form, in whatever medium, from any given period of time, that truly examine the transcendental issues of humanity in a way that people can really get behind. Shakespeare, Homer, Jeremiah, Dostoevsky, and so forth- the geniuses come every now and then and blow the curve, but in general, society looks at the same issues, over and over, and also produces in any period of time a great deal of throwaway material. Perhaps given increases in wealth and technology, the percentage of quality goes down some, but this is a highly debatable point. Does the ease of producing and selling cultural forms that people will forget in a week increase the percentage of dreck, or does the widened accessibility of the media give more people the opportunity to participate, and thus increase the kinds and varieties of voices that will be heard, thus increasing the percentage of memorable messages?

I don't know.

Anyway, I saw 12 Angry Men the other night. It's a good movie. It takes a stab at aforementioned transcendental issues, particularly the issue of the difficulty that surrounds any effort at human justice that involves humans in the process of arriving at that justice, which is to say, all such attempts on a temporal level. Personal prejudices, backgrounds, simple inconvenience, vanity and avarice get in the way very frequently.

"12 Angry Men" is the story of a jury in what appears to be an open-and-shut murder case, when from the very start 11 of the jurors are convinced that the defendant is guilty, and are ready to hang him immediately so as to not disrupt their day too much. But one juror feels the need to think and talk about the case more, if for no other reason than to give the defendant a fair shake. Many of the jurors are angry at him for this disturbance, but they have to hear him out, and doubts begin to arise.

One comes away from the film with a sort of despair about the process. In this particular case, one juror is willing to bear the wrath of his fellow men in order to try to get to the bottom, but frequently as the day goes on in the film, people say that they should just tell the judge that the jury is hung, and therefore they should retry the defendant, because everybody knows that any other jury will hang him. There happens to be this one troublemaker, one do-gooder on this jury who will ask questions, but how many of them are there around?

The process of arriving at justice in the affairs of men is plagued with this dilemma. If you involve people who are concerned with the matter to be judged, then you have the problem of self-interest corrupting the process. But if you involve people who are not concerned or interested in the matter, then disinterest and inconvenience become your problem. How do you motivate people to take a look at the issue in front of them in an impartial and yet interested way, and do justice? How many "do-gooders" are there around, who will pursue a matter just because it's right to do so?

The movie asks these questions, but does not answer them. And frequently, when dealing with these eternal universal issues, that's the best that can be done, because there aren't easy simple answers. But one takes the best stab at them that one can, and hopes for the best, I suppose.

It's when faced with issues like that, that I am thankful for a God who is sovereign, who rules all. I know that justice will always be done, despite the selfishness and ignorance of men. And so, faced with such difficulties, the man of God can simply attempt the best that he can do given the circumstances, and know that God is in control of the outcome.

The movie itself is excellent, gripping, edge of your seat kind of thing, in a way that only a few movies produce. The whole thing takes place in one room and is all dialogue, between a limited number of characters, all of whom you get to know well by the end of the thing. There's a moment or two that are slightly awkward, when a character starts to kind of preach a little- there's one time in particular when one character goes off on a diatribe that is very racist and classist- "you know what _those_ people are like, they're born liars"- that sort of thing, and as he goes on, everyone else becomes increasingly uncomfortable and the man engaged in the rant realizes it and becomes humiliated. So the point is made, but still another character feels the need to engage in a short speech about prejudice, when the narrative already made the point very effectively. But really, this is a minor gripe, that only even stands out in my mind for how subtle and effective the rest of the movie is. It's kind of amazing to me that a movie could develop 12 characters effectively and memorably in just one movie, when so many movies have trouble even developing one character in a way that makes us care about them.

Highly recommended- 4/5 stars.

Rent the DVD free from Netflix!

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