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Twelve Angry Men: The Pliable Human Mind

Twelve Angry Men (1957)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda

How pliable is the human mind? The answer to this simple question, my friends, is quite disconcerting.

This 1957 classic mirrors some of the key failures of the human mind. Set in a hot and humid courtroom, 12 random male jurors from different backgrounds are summoned to release a chilling verdict for a case concerning murder in the first degree. The vote has to be unanimous.

The penalty for the guilty verdict is both mandatory and irrevocable – the death sentence. At a glance, the case is open and shut: an 18 year-old boy from the rough part of town stands accused of stabbing his abusive father. Indeed all, but one juror rendered the young boy guilty within the first few minutes of the film. The 11 jurors confidently declared their sentences out of prejudice, laziness, malice, boredom, arrogance, bitterness, irritation, fear, and intimidation. All it took was a few probing questions from one daring person, portrayed by Henry Fonda, and the formidable front formed by the other 11 folds before our very eyes.

Slowly but steadily, the collective opinion sways due to the very same factors that hinged it on the verdict of ‘guilty’ in the initial scenes. The film ends with the unanimous vote declaring the boy not guilty of the crime.

What does this teach us? Our opinions, whether or not we fancy them to be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, are permeable, vulnerable – open to the influence of both bad and good. Time, as far as “Twelve Angry Men” is concerned, is the only matter that affects change; the change itself, that swaying of thought, is apparently inevitable. Our opinions are subjective not objective. When we pass a judgment and say that it is ‘fair and just’, are we deluding ourselves? When we pass a judgment after saying that ‘we have looked at a problem from all angles’, are we just lying to ourselves? When we say that ‘we have thought things through’, do we bother to gauge the depth of that process? Are we all just sheep?

Directed by Sidney Lumet and co-produced by Henry Fonda, “Twelve Angry Men” is excellent at highlighting how we can delude ourselves into thinking that we have independent and objective opinions and how a strong collective opinion can just be a mirage. It is excellent at showing us how we react to group opinion and societal opinion at large and how we make sacrifices to appease the collective trend. In the film, sweets are used as a subtle tool to illustrate this; initially, Juror 2 handed out sweets to everyone but as soon as he detected a sway in opinion, any requests for sweets from the opposing and losing side were met with hostility. The absence of color adds to the classical authenticity of the film. The use of light and shadow, heat, rain and silence are skillfully implemented in the film to indicate changes in the tide. This may not be your average Friday night movie with the Cronkhiters but it is certainly a film to be viewed, if only to remind us of some of our failures.

October 15, 2002
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