Jury Duty with Austin — Part 1: Exploring Jury-Centric Courtroom Films

Last October I received something in the mail that many of you have probably also received at some point:

As it turned out, the mailing wasn’t a jury summons as I had expected, but rather a preliminary questionnaire: a temporary respite but with the promise that I’d probably get summoned soon. I didn’t think too much of it. I don’t shun the jury experience as many do — I’ve served in a jury before, and believe it’s a worthwhile endeavor that serves an important role in society.

A couple months later, my immediate supervisor at the office for nearly 8 years announced that he had accepted another job and would make his departure from our company. This made me very happy for him and very worried for myself, as we suddenly found ourselves shorthanded. He was the most seasoned of our small three-man help desk team which serves hundreds of financial advisors across the country.

Naturally, this was when my jury summons arrived.

My summons letter indicated that I had been assigned to report to a trial that was expected to last a period of two weeks. Two weeks!? Suddenly my nobler ideals about civil service were challenged by my preference to not put my work life — and that of my poor co-worker who’d be running the help desk alone — through a meat grinder.

I decided to make the most of my situation, and pitched a series of articles covering some jury-centric courtroom films along with a journal of whatever transpired with respect to my jury summons. The idea was approved, as you have no doubt already deduced.

The first couple films on the docket are the two which most directly address the subject of jury duty, and they may have more in common than one might expect.

12 Angry Men (1957)
 Director: Sidney Lumet

This 1957 film was the first from legendary director Sidney Lumet, but it wasn’t the first introduction for the famous tale itself — nor would it be the last. Reginald Rose’s teleplay script had already been produced for television and stage, and would again, but Lumet’s vibrant debut is undoubtedly the best known version. This is for good reason — it’s an absolutely riveting film. As is often the case with first films from great directors, it demonstrated firmly that a film can be both well-crafted and economical. A good story — not big action, special effects, or exotic locations — is the main ingredient to make a great movie. The film picked up Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Picture, and Adapted Screenplay. Not bad for a rookie director’s take on a group of guys sitting in a room talking.

The story is simple but profound. Without any deliberation, a group of jurors, having heard the rather convincing evidence in their murder case, is nearly ready to cast judgment. Most are anxious to take their leave. They’ve already sat in court listening to testimony for nearly a week, and the Jury Room is sweltering in the summer heat. In a preliminary vote, all but one cast “guilty”. The lone holdout, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), explains that while the case may seem clear, they should at least discuss the details before allowing the possibility of letting an innocent person suffer an unjust execution. “We’re talking about somebody’s life here. We can’t decide it in five minutes.”

Fonda’s Juror 8 is an insightful advocate for fairness, and courageous in the face of unanimous opposition where a weaker person would bow to peer pressure. The other jurors are mix of characters with all kinds of backgrounds and opinions. Some care about producing the right verdict while others are disinterested. Some are analytical and level-headed, others emotional and argumentative, or even clearly prejudiced. One memorable juror in particular is a naturalized immigrant with an appreciation for the American Judicial system. Another has tickets to the evening’s baseball game and just wants to leave as soon as possible. Still another seems to hate young people in general. The jurors are portrayed by skilled character actors who instill their screen personas with a sense of authenticity and realism.

The jurors analyze the facts of the case, poring over details, questioning the credibility of the witnesses, and even trying to physically recreate the incident. In deliberating whether there is reasonable doubt in the case, their dialogue uncovers new facts and questions — and slowly opens up the possibility that the verdict they were so sure about might have been too hasty.

12 Angry Men is a triumphant and seminal work both as a minimal production and as a superlative morality tale. At the heart of the film is an intelligent and electrifying script that questions the nature of justice and reasonable doubt. It dares to call out our prejudices and human foibles, and stand up for social justice for those to whom we might not be predisposed to extend it. I can’t imagine this was a particularly common or palatable theme in the 1950s, and yet still remains absolutely relevant even after decades have passed.

Jury Duty (1995)
 Director: John Fortenberry

If 12 Angry Men is a masterpiece, Jury Duty straddles the opposite end of the scale — but I think it merits discussion in the same conversation, for reasons which will soon be clear.

This was actually my first Pauly Shore flick. For whatever reason, readers — call it fate, call it luck, call it karma — I missed that particular wave of the early ’90s. I didn’t grow up with cable and never watched him on MTV. I did take some interest in Bio-Dome, but that was because I was a science-minded kid who was familiar with the real-life Biosphere 2 project. Anyway, I never actually watched it so here I am in 2014 getting my introduction.

It’s probably fair to say that most people don’t really look forward to serving on a jury. Sure, we understand its importance and show up because it’s the right thing to do, but usually regard it as something of an inconvenience or unpleasant necessity. Not so for Tommy Collins (Pauly Shore), who finds himself both jobless and newly homeless when his mom and new stepdad (Shelley Winters and Charles Napier) take the trailer-home on the road for their honeymoon. Hearing that high profile trials will sequester their juries and put them up in posh hotels, and lured by the promise of making $5 a day, he shows up for his conveniently timed jury selection with the goal of getting accepted into just such a case and making it last as long as possible.

What follows is a mildly amusing comedy. Shore’s antics are spastic and over the top. His character’s not exactly a “lovable loser”, more of an annoying moron, but the movie is breezy and harmlessly dumb, and the cast is actually pretty impressive. The jurors are played by a group of recognizable character actors which include Stanley Tucci, Brian Doyle-Murray, Billie Bird, Siobhan Fallon, several Richards (Riehle, Edson, and T. Jones), and Tia Carrere, who also serves as Tommy’s love interest.

With evidence aplenty, the murder charge seems to the jury to be a open-shut case. Tommy is the lone holdout, and it soon becomes clear that the middle act of the film is a direct parody of — you guessed it — 12 Angry Men, borrowing several ideas from that film such as the impatient juror with game tickets and the naturalized immigrant with a heightened appreciation for American justice. Tommy manages to delay the verdict and at one point is shown in his posh hotel room with a bunch of court film VHS tapes sprawled across his coffee table, one of which is 12 Angry Men. If the joke had ended there, it probably would’ve been the best and subtlest gag in the picture, but the reference goes right on the nose when Tommy watches the movie and then quotes lines of it to bolster his case.

The film proceeds with a wacky final act and requisite zippy ending. Aside from parodying a nearly 40 year old movie, it’s fairly unremarkable and disposable entertainment.

Austin will return in Jury Duty With Austin — Part 2.

Get ’em at Amazon:
12 Angry Men — [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Amazon Video]
Jury Duty — [DVD] | [Amazon Video]

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