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12 Angry Men (Friedkin)

I read the script of the original Reginald Rose play 12 Angry Men a few years ago but have never seen a staged production, nor the classic 1957 Sidney Lumet movie. This 1997 remake by William Friedkin works quite well (though I understand most consider it inferior to the Lumet version).

The direction in the early scenes was awkward - but once Friedkin got out of the habit of having every speaker stand up for their lines the players settled down into a nice rhythm. I noticed that he used a lot of handheld cameras to introduce tension into an otherwise static environment. Logical for a bottle show.

All of the cast are very good, though it was strange seeing Tony Danza in a dramatic role and Edward James Olmos putting on an eastern European accent. While Jack Lemmon has the pivotal role of Juror #8 and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the intellectual Juror #4 is excellent as always, it's George C Scott's Juror #3 who dominates - and not just because he gets the ferocious monologue that marks the story's climax.

Rose updated the teleplay for the 90s, inserting topical references and bolstering the language with some choice four letter words. The angry jurors are still males (though various court officials are women), however four of them are written as African American. This change produces the most confronting revised scene, where the bigoted Juror #10 is now a black man railing against the "spics". I'm not convinced that it works as anything more than a "let's see if we can do this now" point, but I'm willing to accept the argument that the resultant politically incorrect discomfort parallels the impact the original scene would have had back in the 50s.

The script does rely on too many plot contrivances even with the explanation of an incompetent court-appointed defence attorney. There are so many deficiencies revealed in the murder trial that each one comes across like a carefully constructed excuse to have the next juror change his mind. That this accumulation of uncertainties causes Juror #4 to turn around does make sense given his character, but so many coincidences still ring false.

It's interesting comparing the arguments in 12 Angry Men to the debates in The West Wing. While many facts and figures are bandied about when discussing government policy in that show, all the big points are scored using pure rhetoric. That 12 Angry Men ends up relying too much on the facts is a fundamental (if slight) weakness (except to explain Juror #4's change, as mentioned above). Notably, Juror #3 isn't swayed by a rational argument, but by an emotional one. Similarly, Juror #10 is also trapped by his emotion rather than the facts of the case.

Putting on my MBA hat for a moment, it didn't occur to me until this viewing that the play highlights both the dangers and wisdom of groups (or "crowds" to appropriate a current buzzphrase). Groupthink was nearly the accused's undoing, but collaborative problem solving was his salvation. It also makes a point about the critical role formal and informal leadership plays. The collaborative exercise was initiated by a strong opinion shaper, Juror #8, and supported by the official leader, ie the jury foreman.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 16, 2005 2:34 AM.

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