Robin’s Underrated Gems: And Justice for All (1979)

1979 - And Justice for All

Al Pacino has delivered so many memorable and iconic lines throughout the course of his storied career, with some of the more famous examples being “I know it was you, Fredo! You broke my heart!” from The Godfather Part II, “ATTICA! ATTICA!” from Dog Day Afternoon and “Say hello to my little friend!” from Scarface. Another popular line from Mr. Pacino is “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”, but here’s an interesting question to ponder: how many of you have actually seen the movie that line is from? In fact, can you even name the movie? I’m sure many people would be prone to guessing Scent of a Woman since Pacino delivered a similar variation of that line during his Oscar-winning performance in that film, but the dialogue actually originated from his highly underrated 1979 film, And Justice for All. Directed by Norman Jewison, And Justice for All is a dark, satirical look at the legal system that features what is easily the least well-known of Al Pacino’s eight Academy Award-nominated performances. The 1970s gave us numerous satirical black comedies about important industries that manages to be both funny and horrifying at the same time because they were so truthful. Some of these films were even known for making young people rethink their career aspirations. Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital probably scared people off from becoming a doctor, Network did the same thing for people hoping to break into television, and I’m sure And Justice for All made a lot of folks think twice about wanting to become a lawyer. This film is a harrowing look at the corruption and inherent flaws within the legal system and while it may be a bit too ambitious for it own good, it still makes a tremendous impact.

And Justice for All tells the story of an idealistic, but hotheaded Baltimore defense attorney named Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) and the first time we see him, he is sitting in a jail cell on a charge of contempt of court. Arthur has developed an extremely contentious relationship with Judge Henry Fleming (John Forsythe), known to be one of the toughest, least tolerant judges in the city, and he is sent to jail for attempting to throw a punch at him. One of Arthur’s clients, Jeff McCullaugh (Thomas Waites), is sitting in jail for something he did not do, but because Fleming is such a by-the-book judge who has utter contempt for anyone who’s charged with a crime, he refuses to hear the evidence that would get McCullaugh exonerated. However, things take a sudden turn when Fleming is arrested for rape and assault and, for political reasons, Arthur is assigned the task of defending him in court. In spite of his hatred for the judge, Arthur has no choice but to take the case. And Justice for All could have easily been the story of a sensationalistic and controversial trial, but it’s a lot more ambitious than that, and surprisingly, the actual trial doesn’t even begin until the very end of the movie. The film contains multiple story arcs that serve as an expose on the scarier aspects of the legal system and the frustrating red tape that goes with it, and Arthur finds himself facing multiple situations which cause him to lose faith in his profession. By the time trial stars, Arthur has started caring way too much about some of his unfairly treated clients and is on the verge of a complete breakdown.

The Academy Award-nominated screenplay for And Justice for All was written by future Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson, along with his wife, Valerie Curtin. Like I stated before, the script probably tries to do a little too much and crams in a lot of characters and subplots into its two-hour running time. As a result, the film has a very episodic structure and its tone is sometimes uneven, ranging from hilariously funny to downright sad at times. However, all the material presented in And Justice for All is fascinating stuff and the film is never anything less than compelling viewing. In addition to Judge Fleming’s trial, the script also deals with Arthur’s frustrations in trying to help some of his other clients, such as the innocent Jeff McCullaugh and a transgender small-time criminal (Robert Christian) who is absolutely terrified at the prospect of having to serve time. We meet other characters such as Gail Packer (Christine Lahti), who works on the legal ethics committee and begins a romance with Arthur, in spite of his absolute disgust with her profession; Jay Porter (Jeffrey Tambor), Arthur’s law partner, who has a berserk mental breakdown after one of the defendants he got acquitted winds up killing some kids; and Francis Rayford (Jack Warden), a suicidal, mentally unstable judge who fires a loaded gun into the air in the middle of the courtroom during his introductory scene. There’s also a nice role for Lee Strasberg, the legendary acting teacher of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and many others, who makes one of his very few screen appearances (his most famous being his Oscar-nominated performance as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II) as Arthur’s senile grandfather. But, of course, And Justice for All is Al Pacino’s picture all the way and what other actor could make the famous “You’re out of order!” line so memorable?

Some detractors point to And Justice for All as the film where Pacino started to gravitate towards the more showy, over-the-top style of acting that he would become infamous for in his later years. In his defense, however, And Justice for All is often presented as a broad satire, so virtually everyone in the cast gets the chance to do some grandstanding at some point. Pacino’s performance here perfectly suits the material and it’s impossible to visualize anyone else doing a better job at delivering Arthur’s big climactic courtroom speech. I wish that I had been around to see And Justice for All in a theater during its original run because the film’s finale is one of those all-time great moments that’s just designed to make an audience cheer out loud. Even though the movie is a showcase for Pacino, the entire cast is terrific overall, and it’s neat to see a lot of recognizable actors in some of their earliest roles. And Justice for All marked the official film debuts of both Christine Lahti and Jeffrey Tambor, and it also features early performances from the likes of Craig T. Nelson, Dominic Chianese and Joe Morton. In spite of garnering two Academy Award nominations, having both a renowned director and writer at the helm, and providing Al Pacino with one of his most famous lines, And Justice for All still remains fairly underrated today and is nowhere near as well-known as Mr. Pacino’s other films from that time period. To be fair, I guess the movie is an acquired taste and its off-the-wall approach will not appeal to every viewer, but it still remains a very entertaining and eye-opening piece of work. Like The Hospital and Network, And Justice for All deserves much credit for presenting scenarios that may have seemed absurd at the time the film came out, but are frighteningly close to reality over three decades later.

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