…And Justice For All? I’d Watch it, but I Wouldn’t Believe in it

Perhaps at the time best known as the director of In The Heat of the Night or Fiddler on the Roof, in 1979 Norman Jewison directed Al Pacino in the legal drama …And Justice For All. The film, though at times very interesting, wildly oscillates between comedy and drama. While it succeeds at both, it doesn't always succeed at melding the two.

…And Justice For All stars Pacino as Arthur Kirkland, a defense attorney who tries to do his best for all his clients, no matter how rich or poor. The film follows Kirkland as he works on the cases of a myriad of clients, some guilty and some not. The film interweaves the stories of his various clients in an attempt to show how justice is, routinely, perverted. It's not just the rich who have an easier time than the poor; in this film everything depends greatly on the judge who tries the case.

The film also spends a good deal of its time and energy on the lawyers and judges who surround Kirkland. First, there is Jay Porter (Jeffrey Tambor), an attorney who, upon learning that a murderer whom he got acquitted has killed again, begins to lose his grip on sanity. Porter mainly provides comic relief as does Jack Warden's Judge Francis Rayford, a gun-toting, suicidal man, who is friends with Kirkland, despite Kirkland's best efforts to extricate himself from the relationship.

Other characters in the film, like Judge Henry Fleming (John Forsythe), have strictly dramatic parts. One of the main cases in the film has Kirkland defending Fleming, a judge he despises, for rape. Kirkland is blackmailed into defending Fleming for a minor past transgression that could still get him disbarred.

Added to the mix in …And Justice for All is a love interest for Kirkland, Gail Packer (Christine Lahti in her first big screen performance), who happens to sit on a committee that is purportedly trying to clean up the legal profession in Baltimore. The two, while romantically attached, butt heads about right versus wrong, good versus evil, and whether it is the letter or the spirit of the law that is most important.

The screenplay, written by Barry Levinson (Diner) and Valerie Curtin (Unfaithfully Yours), attempts the difficult task of balancing zany comedy with incredibly serious plotlines about the struggle for survival within our legal system. It is a balance that more often than not succeeds, but not often enough to make this an outstanding film. One of the plotlines introduced has a client of Kirkland going insane after a case of mistaken identity ends up leading to trumped-up charges that keep him in jail. There is nothing whatsoever funny about it, and having that tale exist in the same film as a played for laughs one with Judge Rayford's half-hearted suicide attempts often gives one the impression that they are watching two films simultaneously with a few characters overlapping from one to the other.

Jewison has to do slightly too much juggling of plotlines here, and consequently some of the stories never get fully explored, like that of Kirkland and his grandfather Sam, who is played by Lee Strasberg. The film still manages to pack a punch and make one think about our legal system (it also got Pacino an Oscar nomination), but it still gives one the distinct feeling that it could have been more.

The DVD release features commentary by Jewison as well as Jewison and Levin discussing, separately, the different elements that went into creating the film. There are also deleted scenes (one of which has been added to the cut of the film that appears), the pilot episode of the FX series Damages, and a “sneak peek” at Pacino's upcoming theatrical release, 88 Minutes.

While …And Justice for All is not the best work of any of the great names involved in its production, it still stands as an above average work. Despite being almost 30 years old, its complaints about justice and the legal system in this country are just as valid (and depressing) today as they were at the time of its production.


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