Judge Clark Douglas is reviewing a legal drama for a review website with a legal theme. What a great time for priceless one-liner, right? Oh well, out of space.
Sometimes right things go terribly wrong.
"I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
As you might have guessed from this film's title, …And Justice for All is an in-depth examination of what the final four words of the pledge of allegiance really mean.
Facts of the Case
Arthur (Al Pacino, The Godfather) is the kind of lawyer you would want to represent you. He is a good man, he is honest, he is intelligent, and he knows how to win. He cares about all of his clients, from the rich businessmen to the homeless guys nobody seems to know. Arthur has been a lawyer for 12 years, and he's starting to get really skeptical about the system. Defending his clients is becoming an increasingly frustrating business. The guilty ones always seem to have strong cases in their defense, and the innocent ones become the toughest to defend. It doesn't help that a local judge (John Forsythe, Topaz) has a particular dislike for Arthur and doesn't offer him any breathing room whatsoever when it comes to the legal technicalities of a court case.
You can imagine Arthur's surprise when that very same judge is arrested on charges of rape and assault. Arthur is surprised even further when the judge asks Arthur to serve as his lawyer. Initially, Arthur refuses to take on the case out of sheer spite, not wanting to aid the man who has plagued him so frequently. However, when another judge (Jack Warden, The Verdict) steps in and informs Arthur that he could be disbarred if he doesn't accept the case, Arthur quickly changes his mind. He begins to prepare a case, and then comes across a troubling question: if his client is guilty, what is he going to do?
When …And Justice for All was released in 1979, the reviews were generally positive but contained a lot of decidedly mixed feelings about certain elements in the film. The movie has a very strange tone. In fact, it has several strange tones. There are elements of serious drama, subtle tension, broad comedy, and everything in-between. Each plotline (and there are many) generates a unique set of feelings, and one can certainly understand why some might feel a little put-off by this. In fact, the film was co-written by Barry Levinson, who has made some similarly disjointed films that just didn't work at all (see Man of the Year for a recent example). Somehow, under the direction of Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair) and with the aid of Pacino's acting, the film holds up as a very strong condemnation of the legal system.
Though Dave Grusin's enjoyably cheesy funk/disco score and a few of the bad hairdos date the film somewhat, …And Justice for All is a film that still seems relevant and timely today. I imagine that ever since the idea of a legal system was conceived, it has been full of significant flaws and a great deal of injustice. The legal problems of 1979 are very similar to the legal problems of 2008, and I imagine that they will be very similar to the legal problems of 2050. This is an angry film that frequently laughs to keep from exploding into a violent rage (which it also does from time to time). How can any good person working in the legal system face these problems and not feel a little bit hopeless at times?
Arthur has one client who was stopped one night because he had a broken tail light. A small misunderstanding led to an arrest, a mistake led to jail time, and now an innocent man has spent two years in prison and is still waiting to get out. All of this because of a broken tail light. On the other hand, one of Arthur's partners (Jeffrey Tambor, Slipstream) defended a murderer and got him off the hook. Now the murderer has killed two children, and the knowledge of this drives Tambor's character into insanity. We're bewildered at these and other situations, and so is this film.
The film covers a whole lot of territory over the course of two hours. We dig into the plot lines I've just mentioned at some considerable depth and others as well. There's Arthur's romantic relationship with a woman (Christine Lahti, The Doctor) who works on a legal ethics committee, Arthur's relationship with his increasingly senile grandfather (Pacino's legendary acting coach, Lee Strasberg), the troubles of a transvestite (Robert Christian) who has been arrested on robbery charges, and the bizarre penchant for extreme danger exhibited by the judge played by Jack Warden. All of these stories are significant; they all play a part in either furthering the themes of the film, or telling us more about the characters.
The supporting cast in this movie is excellent all the way across the board. John Forsythe gives a truly icy, intimidating performance in his role. He's the consummate cold-hearted professional (criminal?). Jack Warden is immensely compelling in a strange part, bringing a dose of loopy unpredictability and humor to the proceedings. Jeffrey Tambor, always good, turns in an off-kilter and sympathetic offering as Pacino's mentally troubled partner, and Craig T. Nelson is quite solid in a small early role as an attorney. It's certainly great to see Lee Strasberg on the screen; he shares some very touching and tender scenes with Pacino.
Despite the fact that the strong supporting cast features interesting, three-dimensional characters, …And Justice for All is still very much a star vehicle for Al Pacino. The film was released during what could be considered the weakest period of Pacino's career (the late 1970s and early-to-mid-1980s). This film and Scarface are both significant accomplishments of that period, but that was also the time that Pacino made Bobby Deerfield, Cruising, Author! Author! and Revolution. Pacino's performance is this film is a commanding, sure-footed piece of high-voltage scene-chewing and has more in common with the entertaining Pacino roles of the 1990s than with the subtler acting turns of the 1970s. Some find the actor to be too noisy and blustery in parts like this, but I have to disagree. Pacino almost always finds such solid ground to root his characters in, and he always seems to bring something interesting and thoughtful to the table. Here, his performance leads up to one of the most iconic scenes of the career. You may very well know it: "You're out of order! You're out of order! This whole trial is out of order!" The emotional build-up to that moment is handled very effectively by Pacino, and when his tour-de-force arrives, he delivers with a righteous fury that few actors could match.
The film looks considerably better than a lot of films released around the late 1970s, and receives a strong DVD transfer that has a very minimal amount of scratches. Picture is just a little on the flat side at times, but nothing to complain about much. Audio is generally pretty good, though at times you may be compelled to use the volume control on your remote. An intimate dialogue scene will sometimes be followed by a very noisy shouting scene, and it's hard to find a volume level that will suit both satisfactorily.
This special edition DVD includes a generous batch of bonus features, some of which are quite peculiar. Norman Jewison offers up both a full-length audio commentary and a 12-minute video interview. These cover some similar territory, and those who only want to hear the meat and potatoes of Jewison's thoughts on the film can just watch the interview. However, the commentary does go into a lot of stuff at significantly greater detail, which is generally what I prefer. There's also a seven-minute interview with writer Barry Levinson, who talks about trying to balance the comedy and drama in the film. Ten minutes of deleted scenes offer some good moments that essentially cover material the film had all ready covered adequately elsewhere. Pacino doesn't show up on anything related to …And Justice for All, but he does turn up during a 10-minute sneak preview of his next movie, 88 Minutes. Personally, I don't care much for this sort of feature; it's of no use once the actual movie has been released. Still, considering that the DVD also generously supplies a free pass to go see 88 Minutes, all is forgiven. See you again in April, Mr. Pacino!
Finally, and most oddly of all, we get the complete pilot episode of the television series Damages, which stars Glenn Close and Ted Danson. This is a very interesting marketing technique, trying to convince viewers who like this film to check out a TV show with similar themes. Personally, I would have preferred for this space to be used for an hour-long documentary on this film, but hey, that's just me. For what it's worth, the pilot episode of the show is pretty decent, though I didn't think that Damages started to get really interesting until mid-season. Also a bit of interesting trivia: …And Justice for All was conceived as a television show, but at the time, TV executives told Levinson that "nobody would want to watch a show about lawyers." Oh, how little they knew…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It could be argued that …And Justice for All pushes too hard, that it verges on the edge of melodrama at times. You'd have a valid case in saying that, and if the movie doesn't work for you because of that, I understand. For me, considering the injustices being dealt with here, I think it would be awfully hard to successfully address them in a low-key way. After all, that's precisely what Arthur tries to do the entire movie, and look what sort of fireworks he is driven to by the end.
Norman Jewison has made a sizable chunk of pretty darn good films in his time, and this is one of his best. It's an engaging and vibrant film that deals with some important subjects. It is never pretentious or self-important; the film is raw, sincere, and unafraid of being laugh-out-loud funny in the midst of tragedy. The ingredients presented here can sometimes make for a messy dish, but it all works in …And Justice for All. This is an excellent film with excellent performances that I can recommend without hesitation.
This trial and this court may be out of order, but that's not going to stop
me from issuing a just verdict: Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
• Commentary with Norman Jewison
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