Wednesday, October 15, 2008

AND JUSTICE FOR ALL or HOW HENRY FONDA DOUBTS

This past weekend, I went to the Baylor University library and checked out an exercise in cinematic discipline: Twelve Angry Men. It'd been a few years since I'd seen it, but seeing as Sarah did her major project last Spring on the death penalty in Texas, I thought that she might be interested in seeing another generation's exploration of justice and due process.

The whole of the film, minus three minutes, takes place in the confines of the jury room, with full-blown character development, conflict, tension, and redemption happening in a single room over an hour and a half. The film is littered with the A-list of the 1950s: Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Jack Klugman, E. G. Marshall...with Henry Fonda as the fly in the ointment spoiling an otherwise open and closed murder case.


As the film unfolds, Fonda is no advocate against the death penalty, nor is he opposed to sending a guilty man to the electric chair. Rather, he recognizes that the deliberation of life and death is a serious task, and one that must start from the place of the benefit of the doubt. This is perhaps the most refreshing part of the movie, that Fonda has no axe to grind or ideology to defend, but rather the pursuit of the truth, or rather, the illumination of the not-truth: Fonda's concern is to allow doubt to do its de-centering work, and push a quick verdict off its pedestal.

Fonda's mantra throughout the entire movie, "But it's possible!", offering an alternate explanation to seemingly ironclad testimony: maybe the witness didn't lie outright, but rather made strong conjecture. Maybe the noises were inaudible; maybe the lights weren't as bright and our memory not as strong.

And maybe that's okay.

The life of faith works much the same way. In the words of Frederich Beuchner, "If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me." It is the space created by doubt which allows for idols to be shattered, pushing us towards lives of deep dependence, in a slow--but consistent--crawl towards life. If innocence is pushed for too quickly, what we find is not the truth; if innocence is sought too slowly, we grow tired and will settle for any truth at all.

3 comments:

the hamster said...

i like the end bit, the synthesis of doubt and the place it holds for us as willing participants in faith. good stuff. keep it coming. i probably will not see this film anytime soon, but i'll see you on saturday. that's good news.

John Barber said...

The best part of 12 Angry Men is the legendary craft that went into the set design. It seems like a small thing, but as the movie goes on, the deliberation room actually gets smaller. That feeling of tension and claustrophobia builds and builds toward the end. Awesome movie.

myleswerntz said...

Does it really get smaller? I thought I was just feeling that. That's great.