Just recently I indulged in watching this classic film again, the debut of renowned director Sydney Lumet. I had seen it some years ago, and I remembered being impressed; the same sensation prevailed on my second viewing. I think it is one of the best examples not only about how the justice system works or rather should work, not only about standing up against the majority and voicing your personal opinion, but it also portrays a quest for certainty in a dubious world that can only offer partial clues and answers.
The film is shot in a minimalistic manner, and most of the action takes place in a confined stifling room where 12 jurors fight over a unanimous decision. For some of them justice is a game. One of the jurors wants to get his jury duty over with so that he can watch an upcoming baseball game that same evening. Others simply use the opportunity to take out and dump their own prejudices on the poor boy on trial.
The boy who comes from a poor family and neighborhood has allegedly killed his own father. The evidence seems to be completely against him; there are testimonies that he has been heard threatening his father, and he has been seen running down the stairs shortly afterward. His alibi does not hold either; he cannot even remember the title or the actors of the movie he claims to have seen in the movie theater the night of the murder.
But then there are some discrepancies. What seemed to be a simple case is suddenly fraught with doubt. One of the jurors keeps punching holes into what seemed solid evidence and approved testimonies. Are the witnesses reliable or do they simply seek attention? Are the jurors free from prejudice or do they use the trial to attack the lower class youth that they believe have gone astray and are good for nothing? One of the jurors might even use the occasion to symbolically punish his own son who has not talked to him for a long time.
Either way, the movie opens up many more questions that are left hanging and unanswered but are vital for the American justice system. Can jurors be objective? Do they really consider the evidence or do they only see what suits them best? There is an undeniable burden of responsibility on their decisions something that must never be taken lightly.
The great feat of this movie is that we are left guessing. At the end, we still do not know whether the boy is guilty or not, but we do agree after listening to all the discussions and the evidence presented that there does seem to be room for reasonable doubt.
An interesting question would be this: Is it better to let a guilty man get away at the expense of killing an innocent person? Should we give people the "benefit of the doubt"? Let the 12 men discuss the issues carefully and elaborately and see what their verdict is. It's not a game; after all, a person's life is at stake here.