Monday 8 December 2014

Movie Review: ...And Justice For All (1979)

The story of a lawyer going through a really rough patch with assorted clients and unhinged judges, ...And Justice For All totters uneasily between drama and comedy.

In Baltimore, lawyer Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) is energetic, idealistic and hot-headed. He is also in trouble for throwing a punch at Judge Henry T. Fleming (John Forsythe), who is not allowing Arthur to introduce evidence that can clear his client Jeff McCullaugh (Thomas G. Waites), trapped in jail as a victim of mistaken identity. Arthur's next case is Ralph Agee (Robert Christian), a vulnerable transvestite accused of participating in a robbery. Arthur is also dealing with the jovial but seemingly suicidal Judge Francis Rayford (Jack Warden), an investigative committee conducting a corruption witch hunt, and a partner who has gone over the edge of sanity.

Arthur starts a relationship with committee member Gail Packer (Christine Lahti), while his one anchor in life is his grandfather Sam (Lee Strasberg) who supported him through law school. Sam is now confined to a care home and is slipping into worsening dementia. Arthur's already stressed schedule receives another surprise: Fleming is accused of a brutal assault and rape, and demands that Arthur lead his defence team. With both McCullaugh and Agee reaching the limits of their sanity, Arthur finds himself stretched to the breaking point.

It's never quite clear whether director Norman Jewison was aiming for a mostly serious exposé of the legal profession or a more lighthearted satire. Long stretches of ...And Justice For All play like a dedicated drama, condemning a culture where lawyers and judges are running amok and a justice system that no longer works for the little guy. Clients are in anguish, the explosive rape case threatens the sanctity of the bench, plenty of scenes feature angry shouting, and Arthur is threatened with disbarment.

But then there are the streaks of dark humour that sit uneasily amidst all the tension. There is a standoff in a hallways with dinner plates used as weapons. Judge Rayford takes Arthur on a harrowing helicopter ride with the sole purpose of perhaps wanting to kill himself by intentionally running out of fuel. And the attorney (Craig T. Nelson) prosecuting the Fleming case is borderline psychotic, hissing megalomaniacal intent in Arthur's face. It may be that the more laugh-worthy moments are intended to highlight the absurdity of Arthur's plight, but the humour never seems to fit properly within the script by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson.

Pacino races through the film with unreserved dedication. So much content is thrown into Arthur's life that it's a miracle he ever finds time to sleep, and Pacino is perfect as a lawyer running hard but nevertheless gradually losing the battle against an overwhelming professional and personal case load. The supporting cast is capable but rather static, with none of the secondary characters encountering any kind of evolution.

Arthur, losing it during his opening statement defending Fleming: "You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order!"

...And Justice For All ends with a famously fiery courtroom scene, Arthur finally deciding that enough is enough when it comes to defending Fleming, and exploding into his "You're Out Of Order!" tirade. It's a suitably frantic ending to an enthusiastic but rather messy film that overflows with both too much plot and too many contradictory tones.

Arthur, as he is being thrown out of the courtroom now in complete chaos: "Hold it! Hold it! I just completed my opening statement!"

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