Monday, February 15, 2010

Review – And Justice For All

February 15, 2010

And Justice For All – U.S., 1979

Norman Jewison’s 1979 film And Justice For All is not a courtroom drama. It does not rely on the sudden appearance of a surprise witness to stir up drama, nor does it end with a verdict, at least not one a traditional one. It even forgoes the commonly used storyline of crime, arrest, trial, and verdict, followed by a quick prologue focusing on either the courageous lawyer or the now free defendant. Instead, we get one lawyer with multiple cases, each one a piece of a fractured legal system that seems impossible to assemble perfectly. Maybe it has always been this way; however, it certainly was not intended to be.

And Justice For All centers on Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino), a decent man in a sometimes dirty line of work. Throughout the film, he struggles to cope with the surprising reality that justice and law are sometimes incompatible. His long-time client Carl Traverse (Dominic Chianese) can’t seem to avoid trouble, whether the trouble comes as a result of a traffic accident or his penchant for extra-marital affairs. Fortunately for him, he’s one of the one’s that the court system seemingly works for every time – he has money. Other clients are not so lucky. Jeff McCullaugh (Thomas G. Waites) languishes in a jail, not because he has committed a crime or because Kirkland is incompetent as a lawyer, but because the evidence necessary to exonerate him was submitted three days late. A third client, first-time offender Ralph Agee (Robert Christian), may or may not have psychological problems; however, one this is clear – prison would utterly destroy him, and so Kirkland works feverishly to produce a deal to keep him out of jail.

McCullaugh’s fate, it turns out, is in the hands of Judge Henry T. Fleming (John Forsythe), a man who confesses to not caring one bit for the people who come before him looking for either justice or mercy. I suppose that is why he can so callously adhere to the law even when doing so inflicts pain on the innocent. In an unexpected turn of events, Fleming later finds himself in need of a lawyer after being accused of rape, and he turns to Kirkland, whom he had earlier briefly locked up for throwing a punch at him, for legal representation. Fleming reasons that it would help to be represented by Kirkland, a man known for his ethics and moral code, for being represented by a man who has such animosity towards him would send a powerful message about his innocence. It all makes perfect sense, but we get the feeling that there’s more to the story than that.

To make matters even more chaotic, there is also an ongoing ethics committee hearing that seeks to root out lawyers who are derelict in their duties. What exactly this means is never explained, but it seems that as long as a lawyer or judge follows the letter of the law, he’s safe. Looked at in this light, Judge Fleming is an exemplary judge, as is Kirkland’s friend, Judge Francis Rayford (Jack Warden), who carries loaded firearms into court and does not even attempt to hide his suicidal tendencies. All that seems to matter is that he’s a “good” judge.

And Justice For All, written by Valerie Curtain and Barry Levinson, does a excellent job of presenting all of these storylines, as well as a few other ones. And through them, we get a picture of an extremely imperfect legal system. We see or hear of lawyers who are afraid of their clients, district attorneys who make backroom deals, and guilty men who are exonerated in court and released back into society. Kirkland is our eyes and ears into this world, and Pacino, at times appearing exhausted and worn-down, plays Kirkland as a man coping with subtle inner rage. Is this really the noble profession his grandfather worked so hard for him to become part of?

It is no surprise that And Justice For All ends with a courtroom showdown, for Kirkland’s act of defiance has become part of our vernacular. I remember hearing Damon Wayons recite it years ago on In Living Color. One could expect then for the ending to be a bit of a letdown or at the very least predictable. It is not, and the credit for that belongs to Curtain and Levinson’s excellent script and to Pacino’s incredible performance. Watch it again. As Kirkland begins to address the jury, he seems to be intending to do his job, to be the kind of lawyer that the ethics committee would pat on the back and commend without any reservations. And then, something changes. His voice slips a bit, and sweat begins to appear on his forehead. There are interruptions, objections that disrupt his momentum. He could easily stop, yet he doesn’t. He picks up where he left off, but instead of gaining in determination or steadfastness, Kirkland’s voice continually shifts, raising in volume one moment, lowering to a whisper the next, and his face tears up. When he finally does shout, it seems to me that he does so in frustration and exhaustion, not because he thinks he can change the profession he has worked in for twelve years. It’s a remarkable moment, and one that few actors could pull off as convincingly as Pacino.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the strength of the relationships in the film. In many film, relationships are treated as ad-ons, something included just because the genre calls for them. However, every relationship in the film, from Kirkland’s relationship with his grandfather to his relationships with his girlfriend Gail Packer (Christine Lahti) and his partner Jay Porter (Jeffrey Tambor), is believable and relevant to the story. In lesser hands, this many storylines could have been confusing. In Director Norman Jewison’s, they are pieces of a complex symphony played to near perfection. And Justice For All is a truly great American film. (on DVD)

4 stars

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