Good Essay On Narrative Analysis Of 12 Angry Men
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Sidney Lumet’s seminal 1957 courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, unlike many others of its ilk, sees the inside of a courtroom at trial only at its very beginning. The vast majority of the film, and the primary source for its drama, is the unusual setting of the film within the cramped, hot jury room in which twelve jurors must decide the fate of a young boy accused of murdering his father. The title 12 Angry Men offers the audience a glimpse into both the cast and premise of the film – the film’s only real substantial cast are the 12 main jurors, all trapped in a simmering pressure cooker of cultural, racial, generational and class tensions that lead to many coming to verbal (and even physical) conflict. While ‘angry’ is not an accurate descriptor of the characters as individuals, the jury process itself brings this deep-seated anger out in all of them.
The dramatic structure of the film is climactic in nature, as is virtually the definition of a courtroom drama – the narrative tenor of the film effectively boils down to the twelve jurors needing to decide on a unanimous verdict on the defendant, with the climax becoming the eventual decision by the jury. The whole film leads up to that climactic moment; though there are episodic ‘acts’, at the end of which a new poll is taken on how each juror is voting, all of the dramatic action in the film is geared toward this climactic verdict. This provides the film with a sense of needed momentum that ratchets up the tension at every turn.
Looking at 12 Angry Men from the perspective of Aristotle’s Rules for Dramatic Structure, the film refreshingly follows them largely to the letter. The film follows unity of action, time and place much more so than many other films, which take advantage of the medium’s ability to transcend those limitations. In 12 Angry Men, the action follows the ruminations of the jury toward a verdict (unity of action), takes place over a single day (unity of time), and in the same jury room for the vast majority of the film (unity of place) (Aristotle). By keeping the concept and setting so uniform and simple, the larger issues and character conflicts are highlighted, and the tension is heightened by not giving the audience (or the characters) a chance to breathe. Just like the jurors, the audience is trapped in a small, sweaty room with these characters, with their anxieties and conflicts and the high stakes of their decisions hanging over their head. By keeping the audience in the same sense of time and place as the characters, and focused on the same single decision that must be made, 12 Angry Men becomes an incredibly tense and immersive narrative experience.
Looking at the film’s sense of range and depth, 12 Angry Men very much takes an unrestricted approach to the relationship of knowledge between the character and the viewers. Because the film largely takes place within this room, the audience knows just as much as the other characters do. While Henry Fonda’s Juror No. 8 is ostensibly the protagonist (as we chiefly follow his attempts to convince the other jurors of his reasonable doubt), the film is an ensemble piece at its core. Right at the start, the judge character lays down the exposition of the case (i.e. the case being tried, the stakes of the verdict) and the way in which the jurors must come to that verdict (it must be unanimous, etc.). That being said, there are also elements of surprise, whenever a new piece of evidence is introduced or a new line of thinking is explored and rationalized.
The film’s sense of depth is highly objective – we do not see any subjective introspection with the characters, as everything we know about them is directly correlated to what we can see on the surface. Even including their names, we do not get any information about the characters that they do not volunteer to the others, such as Juror 3’s relationship with his son, Juror 12’s advertising company, Juror 11’s history as a watchmaker and immigrant, and so on. There are no flashbacks or unnecessary information learned about the characters or the case that is not told to us, leaving the audience in the exact same position as the jurors themselves.
The film itself has a very complex relationship with its plot and story, using the framework of the jury to tell a larger story about this group of people and the defendant they are discussing. The plot, as is on the surface, boils down to Juror No. 8 gradually introducing reasonable doubt in various aspects of the case they must deliberate on, wearing down or convincing the other jurors one by one, until everyone finally reaches a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict. However, the film’s underlying story is the reconciling of a group of disparate men from different backgrounds to mutually accept compassion and logic over their own bias and selfishness.
The story itself gets to be told through the interactions between these twelve jurors, all of whom are distinct and disparate personalities – which sells the film’s exploration of American life and the justice system. The film’s dissemination of information happens piecemeal, one at a time – through the juror’s exploration of one issue after another, the story is told through alternating beats in which one aspect of the case is discussed, someone reveals something about their character, and so on. Often, as the film goes on, the audience learns how these characters respond to decisions based on what they learn about them. Lee J. Cobb’s Juror 3, for instance, always reacts in anger and skepticism to challenges to the jury process because of his underlying resentment about his contentious relationship with his son (which we get bits and pieces of throughout the film). In the discussion of the switchblade knife, Juror 5 (Jack Klugman) reveals a vital piece of information about the knife when he casts doubt on the way the boy would have stabbed his father, using his own impoverished, rough childhood as a reference point at the same time. In this way, plot points reveal both character information and advance the plot, inextricably tying the two. Through these explorations, 12 Angry Men is not just about whether the defendant did it, but about what makes these jurors think the way they do about the verdict.
In order to serve this intriguing combination of plot and story, the film places the characters in an almost-literal pressure cooker, as the jury room grows progressively hotter throughout the day (Cutting 75). The jurors gradually take off their jury clothes bit by bit until they are casually dressed, offering visual metaphors for the increasing pressure and interpersonal tension they are experiencing. As a collective, the characters express a general discomfort with being there, having their time occupied with a civic duty they were compelled to fulfill, as well as the worsening conditions and increasing heat of the jury room itself (Curran 115). In amongst that backdrop, these conditions make the more interpersonal conflicts more overt – Juror 7’s only concern, for example, is getting the jury duty over with so he can get out and go to the game. Jurors 3 and 8 are in a constant, frequent battle of wits, between 3’s stubborn, cantankerous dismissal of new points and 8’s methodical, compassionate sincerity and his insistence on detective work.
Many of the other characters are meeker (Martin Balsam’s Juror 1, the timid Juror 2), and so allow the mood of the room itself to influence their decision, and still others simply vote certain ways out of convenience, like Juror 7). Alliances form between jurors who are similarly aligned – Jurors 8 and 9 quickly band together to start the process of instilling doubt in the jury, while Jurors 3 and 4 are the most stubborn in insisting that the boy is guilty, the former because of his corresponding issues with his son and the latter because of his insistence on following cold, methodical logic and following the facts. All of these men become a microcosm of the various aspects of mankind – all of their strengths and weaknesses – turning the jury room into a fight not just over the life of a young boy, but over what a society would do with someone like that (Waller, Sohrab and Ma 451). The nameless nature of the jurors themselves (we never know their names, only their numbers) helps the audience to understand that they are simply meant to be representative of character and personality types as opposed to fully-fledged characters in and of themselves.
Because of the film’s diverse cast and intimate setting, the film’s plot also serves the theme of community and justice, as well as more specific concerns like immigration and crime. All twelve jurors are white males (though some, like Juror 11, come from another country), inherently privileging themselves over the Latino youth they must deliberate upon. Immediately, this conjures up themes of race, and the narrative structure of allowing twelve white men to decide the fate of a minority criminal becomes reflective of the way American society (particularly well-off whites) treat those of lesser means and different cultures from them. Some, like Juror 8, are compassionate because of their basic human decency, or, in the case of Jurors 5 and 11, because of a common ancestry or socioeconomic background. Others, like Jurors 3 and 10, carry with them deeply racist ideas about minorities, implicitly condemning the child and believing him guilty at least in part because of his race. Through these different representative points on the sociopolitical spectrum, 12 Angry Men also becomes about the way the normally-dominant white male hegemony must deal with new ideas about treating young minorities like human beings, and finding the commonalities within others (including each other) (Lynch and Haney 100).
Through the strict adherence to Aristotle’s rules of narrative structure, a deeply objective sense of depth and unrestricted range of knowledge, 12 Angry Men proves a theatrical, dramatically charged ensemble piece that explores big ideas and complex themes through an otherwise straightforward tale of a jury deciding a case. The singular focus on the jury and the jury room showcases the difficulties and tensions that go into ordinary men being made to ruminate on such a huge decision, and the differing character types are pushed together to show the conflict between rich and poor, citizen and foreigner, involved and uninvolved. While the surface stakes are the life of this young boy, Lumet’s use of setting, time, place and character throughout the climactic narrative reveal a tale about the changing morals and values of generations, and how the great American melting pot must learn to deal with each other.
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Curran, Bridget. "Judging the jury: The camera, claustrophobia and problems of perspective in
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Cutting, James E., Catalina Iricinschi, and Kaitlin L. Brunick. "Mapping narrative space in
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Guo, Fangjian, et al. "The Bayesian Echo Chamber: Modeling Influence in
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Lumet, Sidney (dir.). 12 Angry Men. Perf. Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden. United
Lynch, Mona, and Craig Haney. "Mapping the Racial Bias of the White Male Capital Juror: Jury
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Waller, Mary J., Golchehreh Sohrab, and Bernard W. Ma. "Beyond 12 Angry Men Thin-Slicing
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