By any measure of the yardstick, Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) should not be a member of the legal profession. He’s far too principled. Which is not to disparage lawyers, you understand—it’s just that Kirkland has difficulty functioning in a world where integrity and ethics take a backseat to winning at all costs. Asked by his grandfather Sam (Lee Strasberg) if he’s “a good lawyer…honest?” Arthur responds: “Being honest doesn’t have much to do with being a lawyer.”
“If you’re not honest, you’ve got nothing,” is Sam’s reply. A rational man in a profession seemingly populated with lunatics, Arthur Kirkland is destined to be eventually spit out of the system.
When we first meet Kirkland in …and justice for all. (1979), he’s cooling his heels in a Baltimore lockup—jailed for contempt of court after he took a swing at autocratic judge Henry T. Fleming (John Forsythe). Arthur has a client, Jeff McCullagh (Thomas Waites), who was picked up for a minor traffic infraction (inoperable taillight) and due to a case of mistaken identity (the guilty party has the same name), has been incarcerated for close to two years for a murder he didn’t commit. During Jeff’s stretch in the pokey, Arthur has painstakingly put together the necessary evidence proving his client’s innocence…but because he submitted his appeal three days after the deadline, Fleming refuses to give Jeff a new trial.
All of this is about to change, however. Fleming is arrested for assaulting and raping a young woman…and he demands Arthur defend him in court. Kirkland has no choice: sure, he hates the judge’s guts, but if he refuses he risks being disbarred because Arthur once violated a client’s confidentiality. Kirkland’s motives were noble—his client once described his desire to commit a crime in details that later come to pass—but because Arthur’s information to the police didn’t prevent what happened, he’s guilty of the ethical infraction (discovered while he and his fellow legal eagles are being investigated by a high-minded ethics committee). In agreeing to defend Fleming, Kirkland may be able to free an innocent man.
…And Justice for All was one of those movies that always seemed to be on HBO during my teenage years in beautiful downtown Ravenswood (WV), and as such, I’ve retained a fondness for it despite its imperfections. I saw it scheduled on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in the overnight hours this past Saturday (July 7, paired with another Al Pacino film that I do not recommend, 1985’s Revolution) and set the DISH DVR to record. The following morning, I checked the recording before I slapped it on a disc…and found that I had grabbed a total of ten minutes of the film. (The system had gone out during the night. Swine Joey…)
Fortunately, Justice surfaced on Tee Cee Em on Demand a couple of days afterward, so I was able to download the entire presentation. I couldn’t honestly tell you the last time I watched the film (I’m sure I revisited it between HBO in the 80s and Wednesday night—I just can’t pinpoint a time frame) but it features young Pacino in his prime: the rebel fighting the system much as he did in such films as Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Justice earned Al his fifth Best Actor Oscar nomination (Serpico, Afternoon, and both Godfather films comprise the previous four), and when you remember that Pacino finally took home his trophy for his scenery-chewing performance in Scent of a Woman (1992), you start to understand how bewildered his Arthur Kirkland has become at a world that is slowly making less sense. (I got nothing out of seeing Woman in the theatre in 1992 except for a “Brush with Greatness” moment spotting Days of Our Lives stars Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes in the lobby.)
…And Justice for All’s other Oscar nomination was for Best Original Screenplay, penned by the husband-and-wife team of Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson. The duo would go on to contribute screenplays for such films as Inside Moves (1980) and Unfaithfully Yours (1984), and although Norman Jewison directed Justice it’s interesting to watch the movie as one of the many “Ballimer” vehicles that Baltimore native Levinson would helm (Diner , Tin Men , Avalon , etc.) in his career behind the camera. It was Valerie and Barry’s first produced movie screenplay as a team (Levinson had been a writer on previous films like Silent Movie  and High Anxiety ), and they had Pacino particularly in mind when they wrote the script. (In one of life’s little surprises, Pacino turned down the lead in Kramer vs. Kramer  to do this film…a movie that won the also-nominated Dustin Hoffman his first Best Actor Oscar.)
At the time of its release, …And Justice for All received criticism by lawyers, judges, and the like for its jaundiced view of the justice system (director Norman Jewison once described the film as “a terrifying comedy”) but a lot of it rings true to me despite the obvious exaggerations for dramatic effect. My (small) reservation about Justice is that it’s dramatically uneven; the elements of comedy and tragedy don’t always mesh as well as they should…though taken separately, there are many priceless moments. One particular favorite is the scene where Pacino’s Kirkland is testifying before the ethics committee, an event that escalates in absurdity (the panel members can’t keep track of the questions that have been asked) until Arthur tells the ”show trial” that despite its best intentions, what it’s doing “sucks…and I’m not going to answer any more questions.” (It reminds me of when Woody Allen tells his inquisitors in The Front  to go perform an impossible sex act.) Another of Justice’s major pluses is the plum role assigned to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear fave Jack Warden, who plays the judge-with-a-death-wish Francis Rayford. Warden figures in my other favorite sequence, where he takes Arthur out for a terrifying helicopter ride (Rayford: “Would you like to go anywhere in particular?” Arthur: “No! Down! I’d prefer to go down!”). The scene is falling-down funny, as is Rayford’s trying of a case in which a man claims his diabetes brings about uncontrollable profanity (Rayford: “I’ve never heard of diabetes causing foul language…” Defendant: “That’s because you’re a douchebag.”)
John Forsythe has one of his best film showcases as the loathsome Judge Fleming, and even though I never completely believe the romance between Kirkland and committee member Gail Packer…she’s played by Christine Lahti in her movie debut, and Christine is one of my favorite thesps. …And Justice for All also features Jeffrey Tambor (as Pacino’s law partner…who goes a little funny in the head after his defense of a murderer results in the death of two innocent children), Larry “As the World Turns” Bryggman, Dominic “Uncle Junior” Chianese (as Arthur’s first and fiercely loyal client), Craig T. Nelson (as the D.A. whose comparison of Fleming’s trial and the Super Bowl might make Coach fans giggle), and Robert Christian. Best of all is Pacino’s former acting teacher, the legendary Lee Strasberg, as his slowly-succumbing-to-dementia grandfather—the man who put him through law school and the only reason why Arthur hasn’t walked into the path of a speeding Mack truck at this point in his life. (You’ll remember that Pacino and Strasberg also worked together memorably in The Godfather Part II…and come to think of it, Chianese was in that movie with them as well.) The scenes with Pacino and Strasberg in Justice are just wonderful, with the great Sam Levene (in one of his final motion picture appearances) also delightful as the Greek chorus of the trio.
The true highlight of …And Justice for All is the unforgettable opening statement Arthur makes at Fleming’s trial that has since become both legendary (“You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They’re out of order!”) and parodied in pop culture. It’s such an electrifying performance that it almost makes me forget that Scent of a Woman Oscar win (almost, that is) and allows me to appreciate what an amazing talent Pacino brought to the movies. I watched that scene over and over so many times as a teen that I briefly entertained the thought of becoming a lawyer. (Fortunately, sanity prevailed.)