Retro Reel by Sreepathy, Volume 16

Retro Reel is a column about movies, but not about the latest box-office releases. There will be aspects of review, but the column is intended more as a recommendation of good movies of different genres, with the sense of a retrospective – hence, the ‘Retro’ in the name. In a day and age when movies are projected digitally, the word “reel” may seem retrograde and outdated. Yet, no other word captures the imagery of a movie as “Reel”…Sreepathy is an unabashed movie buff who loves a well-told onscreen story. He has a list of about 450 must-watch movies, and Retro Reel is an attempt to share with friends of a similar bent of mind, some of the best movie-watching experiences he has had. He lives in Naperville with his wife and two sons

Retro Reel is a column about movies, but not about the latest box-office releases. There will be aspects of review, but the column is intended more as a recommendation of good movies of different genres, with the sense of a retrospective – hence, the ‘Retro’ in the name. In a day and age when movies are projected digitally, the word “reel” may seem retrograde and outdated. Yet, no other word captures the imagery of a movie as “Reel”…Sreepathy is an unabashed movie buff who loves a well-told onscreen story. He has a list of about 450 must-watch movies, and Retro Reel is an attempt to share with friends of a similar bent of mind, some of the best movie-watching experiences he has had. He lives in Naperville with his wife and two sons

12 Angry Men

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

The man who said that, Abraham Lincoln, knew a thing or two about all three – adversity, character, and power. He couldn’t have been more precise about it. When men (or women) use power, their character will out. Many of them don’t know what to do with it, or are too intimidated by it, and just bide their time by avoiding to use it. Some waver, or are indifferent, and are drawn in different directions while using it. There are those who are callous and use it without thought. There are others who use it based on what their emotions tell them. Yet others are driven by their own agendas and use it negatively. And then, there are the thoughtful few. The thoughtful lead troubled lives – constantly accosted by questions and concerned about being responsible with using the power vested in them. You see, while the others have it relatively easy – viewing things in black-and-white or red-and-white – the thoughtful are harried by nuances and layers. They see shades – of greys and browns…12angrymen

That is exactly the kind of motley group of men you’ll get to meet when you watch 12 Angry Men (1957). And yet, this microcosmic group so aptly reflects the larger world we live in every day. These men form a twelve-man jury that has been vested with the onerous power to decide the guilt of a young man. The reason why it is an all-male jury is that only in 1975 was it clearly mandated by US law that women cannot be kept out of juries. One of the seminally classic American movies of all time, 12 Angry Men opens with the concluding stages of a homicide case, where a young man of indeterminate, alien ethnicity is accused of killing his father. The jury has to decide whether he is guilty and deserves to be sent to the gas chamber. The trial judge instructs members of the jury to carefully weigh all the evidence that was presented to them over the course of the trial, asks them to reach a unanimous decision, and exhorts them to keep an open mind to avoid any bias when they go behind closed doors for deliberations…But the question is, when we are behind a door – closed or otherwise – how open are our minds ?

12angrymenThe jury gets to work immediately by taking an initial vote to find out what everyone thinks. All of them vote “guilty” – well, except for the thoughtful man who says otherwise. It’s one against eleven. And, this is the only conflict in the story – there are no other plot contrivances. Told in real-time of about an hour and half, the entire rest of the movie is about how the tables turn to eleven against one, and eventually to twelve against none in favor of “not guilty”…

Adapted from a successful teleplay of the same name, 12 Angry Men, written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet, is a cultural and historical icon of the best that Hollywood ever made. Rose was inspired to write it based on his experience as a juror in a homicide trial. This movie is an example of a brilliant ensemble act, led by Henry Fonda playing the thoughtful man. The fact that the jurors are not named, but only numbered, sharpens the poignancy and highlights the starkness of its narrative. Technically, for a story that remains inside a small room – crammed with a table, chairs, and twelve men running into one another – for 91 of its 96-minute length, you’d think that it’ll jar your nerves. But no, it tingles your nerves and plays out like a first-rate thriller, thanks to Lumet’s legendary directorial flourishes and some fascinating black-and-white camera work involving well-crafted angles and careful close-ups. This drama has been adapted for the screen several times, including Basu Chatterjee’s extremely well-made 1986 Hindi version ‘Ek Ruka Hua Faisla’ – though the jury system was abolished in India in 1959.

The appeal of 12 Angry Men is that it can be viewed through different prisms, each eliciting its own spectrum of insights. You can see it through the prism of power, prejudice, and character. With power in hand, judgment is clouded by the prejudices and predilections that come rushing out. And character gets defined by those very prejudices and predilections. In addition to prejudice, proximity too brings character out in the open. When twelve people are sequestered in close proximity with one another, they can no longer hide their true self behind the shield of the distance they put 12angrymenbetween one another in the open world. It’s only a matter of time before character leaks out…

Or, you can see the movie through the prism of group dynamics and leadership. When I was in business school, we learnt about the concept of “groupthink” – a phenomenon where a group as a whole begins to think and behave like an entity in itself, thus killing individual thought and responsibility. In that context, an effective leader is one who can break the groupthink by getting each individual to contribute solely on the strength of their own ideas. 12 Angry Men depicts groupthink in one of the most authentic ways that I have seen. The way the thoughtful man’s leadership brings about a turnaround within the group is a treat to watch. No wonder then that the movie has been used as a training tool by human resource professionals in well-known organizations the world over. It plays out like a visual case-study on group behavior and leadership styles…

12 angry menJurisprudence is yet another prism through which you can watch this movie. One of the subtle, yet finest, tenets of jurisprudence, especially in criminal cases, is what is called “guilt beyond reasonable doubt”. It’s not just the case whether someone is guilty. Guilt has to be proved with no room for reasonable doubt in it. This principle protects the accused from the shenanigans of a shoddy prosecutor, and tries to reduce the chance of a miscarriage of justice. As the narrative of 12 Angry Men proceeds, the question is not whether the jury is convinced about the young man’s guilt or otherwise but whether there is, or isn’t, “reasonable doubt” about his guilt.

That said, juries, like any other system that involves human beings, are not perfect. There are lawyers who specialize in presenting their case in a manner that will manipulate the prejudices and emotional vulnerability of the jurors…Majority is just a number – especially when it comes to questions of right and wrong. Yet, there are many instances of juries using the weight of majority to crush individual opinion and make decisions based on numbers…Legal history is also full of examples where the principle of reasonable doubt – due to its intrinsically amorphous nature – was given an easy go-by, resulting in gross miscarriage of justice…12 angry men

Ultimately, a perfect jury exists when there are flawless humans that can be randomly drawn from society at large. But if such flawless humans existed, would we need juries at all ?

PS: ‘12 Angry Men’ is available in the Naperville Public Library.

facebook comments: