…And Justice For All (1979)
Release Date: October 19th, 1979 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Norman Jewison Actors: Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe, Lee Strasberg, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Lahti, Craig T. Nelson
And Justice for All” couldn’t be a more sarcastic title, perfectly condemning the atrocities and total lack of justice portrayed in this thrilling legal drama. It features a famous shouted line (“You’re out of order!”) that became instantly recognizable and predates, though it has now been overtaken by, the similarly themed retort “You can’t handle the truth!” barked by Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men” (1992). With consistently brilliant dialogue, intricate character development, and an Academy Award nominated performance by the incomparable Al Pacino, “…And Justice for All” is a truly must-see courtroom anti-procedural.
Known for his high regard for truth and equity, Baltimore lawyer Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) is called upon to defend Judge Fleming (John Forsythe) in a lawsuit. The catch is that Kirkland despises the judge, who has an unusually malicious love of statutes that frequently harm Arthur’s clients. In a political maneuver to discourage the idea that hidden deals and negotiations might take place in clearing Fleming, Kirkland is blackmailed into defending the adjudicator against the charges of brutally attacking and raping a young woman. To add even more flames to the fire, Arthur openly oppugns Fleming’s honesty and is certain that he is guilty; Kirkland’s partner Jay Porter (Jeffrey Tambor) is rapidly going insane; and Arthur’s clients are succumbing to tragic fates during bouts of wrongful imprisonment.
From the jazzy and upbeat intro music (gaily carried on throughout much of the film) to the final sarcastic scene on the steps of the courthouse, “…And Justice for All” makes no mistakes about cynically battering and brutalizing the legal system. Corruption runs rampant amongst the colorful characters frequenting the courts, and the last thing anyone actually receives is fairness. Judges shoot guns to gather order in the courtroom, committees mistakenly investigate only the upright lawyers, and deals are struck and traded like in the stock market. But beyond simply mocking right and wrong and whether they have anything to do with determining innocence and guilt, the film builds up believable characters that are strikingly memorable.
Pacino flawlessly portrays Kirkland, a skilled lawyer who struggles with his senile grandfather, staying on the good side of the suicidal Judge Rayford (Jack Warden), maintaining a relationship with his girlfriend who sits on a committee that unsuccessfully probes corruption, and providing unintentionally false hopes to his clients that rot in prison. He remains the underdog throughout the film, being stepped on by Fleming, falling victim to unfortunate timing, and even being shorter than his combative girlfriend. And the first impression of Arthur is seeing him in a jail cell after being held in contempt of court for assaulting a judge. These devices allow the contrasting climax, in which he’ll finally, publically exclaim his suppressed beliefs, to be just that much more powerful and poignant. “Being honest doesn’t have much to do with being a lawyer,” Arthur admits during a discussion with his grandfather.
One of the things the film does better than most is to engage the audience with hilarious, razor-sharp dialogue, plenty of deeply emotional interactions, and vivid events that pop up from the basic plot. While the major storyline is not entirely complex, the many subplots that weave in and out support the main theme by giving the film a feeling of fullness – not a moment is wasted (despite the presence of scenes that don’t push the story forward) and the pacing is precise. As it moves towards its stunning conclusion, it’s difficult not to become completely immersed in this tragic tale of the search for truth and justice in a world overrun by corruption and lies.
– Mike Massie