In his seminal book on America on the Sixties, Nixonland, author Rick Perlstein wrote of the faith Democrats had in their presidential candidate, George McGovern on the eve of the 1972 election. Polls had shown the incumbent Richard Nixon comfortably ahead for months. Perlstein related liberals undying faith to the film, Twelve Angry Men (1957). "It would end like (the movie) where only the jury's prejudices had blinded them from seeing that they were about to condemn an innocent man, and where the liberal's gentle, persistent force of reason had compelled the brutish conservative, by the last reel, to realize the error of his ways."
Alas, politics is rarely like the movies. Nixon won in landslide. (Twenty months later he resigned in disgrace, but that's another story.)
Twelve Angry Men is the story of possibility. How one man, unconvinced in the face of seemingly indisputable evidence, can gradually bring others around. These men must look at facts and find the truth hidden behind them. That one man (played by Henry Fonda -- who better?) does not use histrionics but reason. It is a triumph of logic and examination over bluster, over pomp over "the obvious."
Score one for the intellectual process. How often have Americans been swayed by leaders and voices who speak from the gut rather than the brain. Indeed as president George W. boasted of utilizing his gut. He and his supplicants, both in government and the media, were able to marshal "facts" to convince the vast majority of Americans about the wisdom of invading Iraq. The results were of course the greatest foreign policy debacle in America's history -- which is going some, I know.
There was no Henry Fonda to reason with W. and the American people. Fonda's Juror #8 from Twelve Angry Men could have calmly encouraged a closer look at the "evidence" being presented as justification for war. Why? It's what we're supposed to do in a democratic system. We're obliged to question the obvious.
The United States is and always has been a country riddled with faults. From slavery to the genocide of native tribes to corporate greed to efforts to block health care reform to Fox News, this country has had some serious messes. But this country is full of promises too and full of potential. Much of which can be found by a close study of the country's constitution (which barely survived the Bush/Cheney's years).
A jury of one's peers can sometimes overcome its prejudices through steady deliberation and render a fair verdict. It happens. Twelve Angry Men presents a case that is a veritable miracle. There is no dramatic movement, slow motion camera work or impassioned speeches. Just folks going over the minutia, looking at at it from different angles, until the truth becomes apparent to even the most bigoted. And even he, that most bigoted of men (Lee J. Cob as Juror #3) is exposed for what he is, even to himself. It is a thoroughly compelling film, with nary a special effect and has held up these past 50 years. Kudos to director Sidney Lumet.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is another film which presents a miracle forged by a man using the "system." A senator being railroaded by corrupt influences holds a one-man filibuster to expose the truth hidden behind an avalanche of supposed "facts." He wins against all odds.
Those of us on the political left are often plagued by an excess of idealism. We believe in the power of truth to convert. We think that by shining a bright light on lies and hypocrisy -- look there's a man behind the curtain! -- we can help the masses see the truth about a bumbling president or a wrongly accused man.
Movies like Twelve Angry Men and Mr Smith feed our idealism. But so too does our rare success, as evidenced by W's plummeting popularity in his last two years.
What led Juror #8 to question the obvious? It was his duty. His duty as a juror. As a citizen. He took his charge seriously. Imagine if half as many U.S. citizens took seriously their duty as Americans. To too many, patriotism is standing solemnly for the national anthem and perhaps, just perhaps, casting a vote on election day. For news and opinion they seek not divergent views but the words of those who will affirm what they already believe. They are swayed by ideologues (there's Fox News again) rather than their own study of the facts to find the truth behind them.
That's a lot of work. It's work most of us don't want to engage in. Juror #8 was willing to do the work and thus the other 11 gradually followed. Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith was on the verge of giving up -- always the easier course -- but was persuaded by his aide and love interest Saunders (Jean Arthur) to knuckle down and do the work that would not only vindicate him but bring down a graft ridden political machine.
Here then is what's so wonderful about these two films. They do not rely on super heroes performing the impossible, but on regular people doing the probable. So miracles do happen. They just require good ole fashioned work. That's how you can find the truth hidden behind the facts.