With the passing of Sidney Lumet, we have lost one of the most gifted directors of the past half century, and one of the most gifted directors of films about New York City ever, to whom we owe Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, Prince of the City, and many others. But for me, and I guess, for many others as well, his most memorable NYC film was his first, one that only shows the city in glimpses, 12 Angry Men, the ultimate jury room film.
Made in 1957, the film is often seen as a high water mark of post-war liberalism, in which prejudice, seen as a distorting filter that blinds people to their own less than rational motivations, is eventually exorcized through exposure to the honest discourse of unbiased seekers of truth. Of course, if they were making the film today, it would end with Lee J. Cobb making his day, Clint Eastwood-like, with a sniveling Henry Fonda, tearfully admitting on his knees that his Harvard elitism blinded him to the reality that a punk is a punk is a punk, and that he almost let a dangerous murderer back on the street.
The dominant metaphor of the film is the jury as democracy, in which people from different classes and backgrounds struggle to transcend their differences in their difficult search for a common ground. This doesn’t have too much to do with the reality of the jury system, with its origins lost in the Anglo-Saxon mists of the witenagenot and whatever, and the consensus the jury reached in 12 Angry Men with the notable lack of women and blacks, was not in the end truly representative of the country as a whole. Still it’s a powerful metaphor, one perhaps behind much of Obama’s efforts to convince Americans that what they share in common is more important than their differences. But if that's what he doing, he going about in the wrong way.
What the jurors in the film shared were not their attitudes or beliefs, but a common task, a common purpose. They were partners, equal partners, and everyone was of equal importance. Once they understood this, they were able to reach a common decision. This is what America so badly lacks today, and I'm not sure how Obama should go about trying to realize this, but you don’t start by stating how much you agree with those opposed to you.
Perhaps you start by finding a common enemy. Another Lumet film that perhaps speaks more to the spirit of our times, is one of his least characteristic films, Murder on the Orient Express, sort of the reverse of 12 Angry Men, in which—-spoiler alert—-twelve or so people of very different backgrounds and stations in life come together for the express purpose of killing someone they mutually loathe. If we really hated the recession as much as the travelers on the Orient Express hated the kidnapper-murderer they offed, as much as FDR hated the depression, we might begin to discover again what he had in common.