What we can learn from '12 angry men' - part 1

12 Angry men tells the story of 12 jurors who have just spent days in a court room, listening to the case of a young man accused of murder. The audience does not get to see what happened in the court, we will only watch the jurors enter a room and deliberate on
whether the accused if innocent or guilty, in which case he would be sentenced to death.

While it was released in 1957, it really is a major film. We keep seeing new adaptations, both in film and theater. I personally consider it a perfect film (if there is such a thing), and mention it when asked which is my favorite, as it uses such a simple setting and rules, but does not get boring a single second. It also never under estimates the audience, which is something that has become a rarity in the current landscape.


The characters

While we don't know them all yet, I should first recap here who all the characters are, mostly to have an easy reference.

The 2 most important ones:
- The protagonist: Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda. He is the one who starts by having a doubt. Everyone is convinced that the accused is guilty, while he is not. He is the hero of the story.
- The main antagonist: Juror 3. Every juror other than our protagonist starts as an antagonist, since their viewpoint is opposed to his. But juror 3 could be labeled as the main one, because he will be the toughest to defeat.

After those first 2, we have 4 others, which also have an important presence.
- The first ally: Juror 9. The old and wise man.
- The worst antagonist: Juror 10. While juror 3 is the main antagonist, he is not the worst in the sense that he is redeemable. The audience will want him to learn from his failure. While for juror 10 is written to be hated and unredeemable.
- The implacable and heartless: Juror 4. A very strong antagonist, but the one who will be convinced by logic as opposed to emotion like Juror 3.
- The link with the accused: Juror 5. One with a similar tough upbringing as the accused, he helps create a bond between the kid and the audience, as if we could see in him who the kid could become: a grown up and decent man with a future, as opposed to a kid on an electric chair. He is very important for us to emphasize more on the stakes of this story.

We have 6 remaining jurors, who still have presence, but carry less weight then the preceding ones.
The moderator: Juror 1.
The undecided but ally: Juror 2. He does not drive, but still helps our protagonist articulate his arguments on why there is doubt on the accused's guilt.
The emotional and disinterested: Juror 6. He has similarities with juror 3, but without any desire to fight. He just wants to be out by the end of the afternoon to go and watch a baseball game. His presence is still interesting as he metaphorically represents people who don't speak up, who don't care.
And 3 remaining ones: Juror 7, 11 and 12. Not as emotional and more participant than 6, but also with little presence and weight on the decisions.

And we also have a very important one: The accused. He is the one those 12 jurors keep debating about. He is physically absent, but nevertheless very much present in our mind. The filmmakers made sure to have a shot of him before the jurors entered the room. We see a kid, who seem more a victim than an aggressor. While this single shot may not be enough for us to be sure of his guilt or innocence, this puts a seed in our mind, which we might subconsciously refer to when hearing the jurors debate.

Act One

As we can see in the timeline created by importing the film into MediaTag and marking the different moments, this act could be decomposed in 7 parts:

1 - the prologue
2 - the character and setting introduction
3 - vote 1
4 - characters explaining their opinion
5 - the protagonist voicing his concerns over the quality of the defence
6 - the knife proof being debunked
7 - vote 2

Let's go into each in more details.

1 - The Prologue

This scene lasts 4 minutes.

We start from the opening shot on the front entrance of the tribunal, as an intimidating and imposing establishment. Some characters walk in the corridors, until we reach the court room. The jurors are briefed by the judge, until they are sent to deliberate.

This scene ends on the shot on the accused mentioned above.

The goal of this scene was to place the context of the story.

2 - The Character and Setting Introduction

This scene lasts 7 minutes.

Since we have 12 characters to quickly become familiar with, the film makes sure we get introduced to them step by step. It uses this scene, where all jurors are ready, except the eldest who they are waiting for, to have them move around the room and talk to each other in small groups. This is a series of small little scenes, which allows us to get a quick glimpse of almost all of them.

This is why this article is both about writing and directing. When viewing the film, it is tricky to separate the two. For instance, decisions to use a single shot to establish the characters as we would discover their faces was probably not in the script but decided in rehearsal. But is completely part of how the audience receives the information, and therefore part of the storytelling.

Also note that this was so far only a single 5 minutes shot, until our main protagonist gets called and asked to sit with the group.

After this series, they decide to sit, in the order of the number assigned to them. And that's the only way we have of calling them, their number, not their name.

3 - Vote 1

This scene lasts 5 minutes.

This vote starts the story. Most jurors expected this to be done and dealt with quickly, but are surprised that 11 think the accused is guilty, while our protagonist is the one vote not guilty.

From this point on, we know what the movie is about. It might have been obvious before, depending on how much context you had before watching it, or on how much you could guess, but this is a turning point. I'd be tempted to call this the midpoint of the first act (if there was such a thing in the magic of screenwriting).

"Do you think he's innocent?"
"I don't know. I just want to talk."

This is such a smart way to start things. Non aggressive, and invites jurors to voice their opinions. But this nevertheless is the opening of the hostilities we are here to watch.

4 - characters explaining their opinion

This scene lasts 7 minutes.

As a reaction to the votes, the opposing jurors agree to explain their opinion to the protagonist. Some show hints of impatience, but nothing is too aggressive yet. This is a good way for the audience to start getting familiar with the details of the case. We learn that there are 2 witnesses, an old man and a middle aged woman.

We also see how some characters, like the ad marketer, take this too lightly. Each character in this story is unique and portrayed very realistically.

5 - the protagonist voicing his concerns over the quality of the defense

This scene lasts 3 minutes.

The protagonist responds to the opposing jurors. We learn about the kid's difficult upbringing. This is surely where we will subconsciously recall that shot on him.

We also get a more emotional feel of what is at stake. The judge may have mentioned it, but he wasn't moved by it. Having the protagonist say: "A man's life is at stake, I can't raise my arm and send him to the electric chair" reminds us that a young kid's fate can be decided in a very cold manner by just a simple gesture.

He insists that they should put more thoughts in this case and not simply fall for appearances.

6 -The knife proof being debunked

This scene lasts 5 minutes.

This scene has 2 goals: making us more familiar with Juror 3, the antagonist, who start showing real impatience, and putting doubt over a first detail incriminating the kid: the knife used in the crime.

Juror 3 is the one who will speak about his back story the most. His relationships with his own dad and with his son, both being troubled. This is a great parallel with the kid's life.

There is a simple and great exchange between the protagonist and antagonist:

Antagonist: "This isn't an exact science."
Protagonist: "That's my point."

This is the game that our protagonist will learn to play. He will push the antagonist to express his opinion so that he ends up contradicting himself, therefore proving the protagonist right. 

A huge question raised being what is unlikely versus what is possible. This speaks to me a lot, as this is such a common fallacy we are easily victim of. Something which we think rarely happens makes it "impossible". It is the kid of shortcut that we of course need to take to go through life, but when in this case a man's life is on the line, this thinking becomes very problematic. A great lesson in this scene, without being patronizing.

This scene is also an opportunity to mention the other proofs in the case, but this is only so we start to get an idea of how many there are without being bored by it. The rest of the film will take care of going through them.

7 - Vote 2

This scene lasts 4 minutes.

Following his argument, the protagonist accepts to do a second vote. If he hasn't changed anyone's mind, he will go along the group and vote guilty. But if he has changed a single person's mind, the debate will keep going.

And of course, he has changed someone's mind: the eldest and wisest. He is the one who accepts to update his point of view in the light of new informations.

We are now 10 voting guilty against 2 vote not guilty.

We immediately witness the effect of group dynamics. The one who changes his mind gets victimized, gets pointed as weak and easily influenced. This shows how changing one's mind can be sometimes seen as a stupid move. This is a hard reality we can all relate too, which is a shame, as adapting ourselves to new information is so important.

Takeaways for Act One

The end note of this act is that even though it ends with a small victory with this one juror changing his mind, we understand this will be a long road. Every juror will have to be convinced one by one. They all have different personalities, meaning they will have to be convinced in different ways.

This first act therefore makes an excellent job at telling us what type of film we are going to watch. While it is labeled in imdb as "Crime, Drama", it does have elements of a complex psychological battle. While we do not think the characters are in actual danger, there is still the life of the accused at stake, therefore it is not far from being a psychological thriller.

This act also does a good job at drip feeding us informations we need. Both regarding who the characters and what the details of the case are. Nothing is done in a boring bullet point type of setup. This is always done through emotions, in a natural way. A great intro.

You'll see that I assumed act one ended after that second vote. I was initially wondering if the first vote was that end, since it places the conflict. But it seems that between vote 1 and 2, we dive deeper into the stakes and how the rest of the film will unfold. This is the reason I decided to decompose the film that way. But if you think otherwise, be sure to mention it in the comments below as others could learn from it.

See you in a few days for Part 2, which will go over the second act. Be sure to subscribe to the weekly newsletter below to be notified when this is published.