12 Angry Men is not a great film. It’s very well acted and the dialogue is well-written… but it lets itself down with lazy writing elsewhere, facile plotting and a potentially dangerous message. This could easily have been rectified with a little balancing or a companion piece on the importance of justice being done in a situation where there is no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.
In the end they come to the right conclusion: there is more than enough doubt as to whether the young man is guilty or not. The evidence is flimsy at best. At the start of the film it all seems like a done deal. Between then and the end it certainly encourages critical thought and the abandonment of prejudice and jumping to conclusions… but it depends on what your prejudices are. By the time all of the evidence is dissected and has fallen flat on its face you’ll have borne witness to far too much lazy writing. New elements are introduced all the time to counter each piece of evidence – the writer essentially writing his way out of the corner he placed himself in. The preposterousness of the journey from damningly guilty to there being no clear evidence at all makes 12 Angry Men a film that’s largely preaching to the converted – the converted being those who have an ear for the prejudices of Henry Fonda’s character. Along with his main rival, a straw man right-wing caricature who bleats about “bleeding heart liberals”, Fonda’s juror is prejudiced. He talks about the kid’s upbringing and other issues that distract from the fact that the trial is about whether he is guilty or innocent. Justice is not done by letting somebody who feels hard done by off the hook for something they’ve done. Regardless of their upbringing and background everyone has to take responsibility for their own actions at some point in their lives. When the film ends an old man shakes Fonda by the hand and he struts off – job done. They’ve reached the right verdict but it still does not vindicate Fonda’s character’s prejudices any more than the kid being undoubtedly guilty would have vindicated those of the comic book right-winger.
The most interesting character in the film is the second-last one to give in – clinical, logical and bespectacled. To him the most important thing is justice, including a guilty verdict where the evidence demands it. This is the man the film should have celebrated – somebody who’d dispassionately review the evidence and have no qualms about freeing a man or possibly sending him to his doom. After all, once the evidence is irrefutable it’s not the police, the prosecution, the jurors or the judge condemning a man, but his own actions.