Thursday, November 18, 2010
AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1979): Those Crazy Attorneys
And Justice for All is a short (119 minute) film that should on its face never be mistaken for a realistic courtroom drama. Such an explanation is in order because the credulity of most movie viewers is truly astonishing. Fortunately, Norman Jewison knew (or had to know) that the film he was directing was a farce. It doesn’t take a great deal of insight to figure out immediately who is the hero of the film and who are the villains. And here we are presented with a legal system portrayed as so irretrievably corrupt that any innocent person caught up in the cogs of such a system only has about a twenty percent chance of surviving the ordeal. And those that cannot automatically be labeled as good or evil in this film are indifferent at best and insane at worst. Without question, what makes this film still very viewable thirty years after it was first released was the acting of Al Pacino as the idealistic and crusading Baltimore attorney Arthur Kirkland and, to a lesser but still significant degree, the role played by Lee Strasberg as Sam Kirkland, the loving but now befuddled grandfather of Arthur. The two (previously matched up as rivals in Godfather, Part II) come across as completely authentic human beings in the face of great absurdity.
Arthur has one client named Jeff McCullaugh (Thomas G. Waites) pulled over for a broken traffic light, identified as a possible murder suspect, and later brow-beaten into confessing to the murder he never committed. Arthur has another client, an African American and transgender young man named Ralph (Robert Christian), who was an unwitting accomplice to an armed robbery and who obviously will not be treated well in jail if convicted for his crime. Arthur’s partner, Jay Porter (Jeffrey Tambor), was a talented criminal defense attorney that once got one of his clients off on a murder charge due to a technicality. Unfortunately, that client then went on to murder two children and Jay has now become so guilt ridden that his behavior becomes erratic. Arthur frequently appears before a judge named Francis Rayford (Jack Warden) that unquestionably displays neurotic and/or psychotic behavior including sitting on a fifth floor ledge while eating lunch, flying his helicopter out across the ocean waters until the fuel tank is less than half full, and sticking a gun in his mouth while lightly tapping on the trigger just short of making it fire. Arthur dates an attorney on the ethics committee named Gail (Christine Lahti) who he adores and who adores him in return, but who is under misguided impression that her committee was really formed to clean up the legal profession rather than keep out those attorneys that do not conform to the demands of the status quo. Finally, Arthur is being blackmailed into representing the seeming straight laced law and order judge named Henry T. Fleming (John Forsythe) that is keeping Arthur’s client, Jeff, in jail on a technicality, and who now finds his legal career as judge in jeopardy (not to mention his life) after being accused of brutally raping a young woman. Judge Fleming wants Arthur as counsel not only for his legal skills but because the two are known as enemies, and the judge figures it would look good to be represented by someone that has publicly shown disdain for him (his reasoning being that why would such a man represent him if he, the judge, was not innocent). Further complicating matter, the prosecuting attorney, Frank Bowers (Craig T. Nelson), does not want to drop charges against Arthur’s client, not because he believes in Judge Fleming’s guilt but rather because it would be a great political victory for him to put a sitting judge away.
Nothing goes well for Arthur. His client Jeff gets himself involved in a standoff at jail and Jeff gets shot in the head by special operations of the Baltimore police. After Jay snaps while at the courthouse, Arthur is forced to accompany Jay in the ambulance to the hospital. Because Arthur needs to accompany Jay, Arthur then asks his friend, Warren (Larry Bryggman) to represent Ralph at a court hearing. Unfortunately, Warren fails to follow Arthur’s instructions, Ralph is subsequently sentenced to jail, and Ralph ends up hanging himself in his cell. Arthur seems to be the only one to care that these two individuals have died. Arthur also is having difficulty dealing with his grandfather’s increasing signs of dementia. And Arthur discovers that, after being forced to take on Judge Fleming’s case to avoid facing sanctions from the ethics committee, Judge Fleming really was guilty of the rape and was probably guilty of much, much more. The film concludes with Arthur giving his opening statement at the trial of Judge Fleming (coincidentally taking place in front of Judge Rayford) where he finally snaps, gives his real opinions on what he thinks of Judge Fleming and the entire legal system, and is removed from the courtroom. Arthur is left sitting on the courtroom steps where he sees his crazy partner, Jay, entering because Jay has now been allowed to practice law once again.
In between all of the pathos, And Justice for All is a hilarious film. The movie allows the audience to feel like they and Arthur are the only sane ones looking in. As an indictment of the legal system the movie fails because it is in no way a realistic depiction of anything. As an indictment of those in power in succeeds because we all know damn well that many individuals in the legal and political system of our nation are legalistic buffoons that are sanctimonious in appearances only and are more concerned with wealth and status. (As an aside, the same is true of most Hollywood moguls.) One of the most effective scenes in the film is when Arthur waylays Warren after Ralph has hung himself and begins kicking and striking Warren’s luxury automobile. Warren attempts to defend himself for his inattention at Ralph’s hearing by telling Arthur that these are just “nickels and dimes” matters that are unimportant. To this, Arthur shouts, “Don’t you care, don’t you care!” and then as an afterthought tells Warren that they’re representing “people.” Al Pacino plays the part of the attorney that has a heart so well in part because he does have his human foibles and because he often fails. The one time he does not fail is in giving his opening remarks at Judge Fleming’s trial. There he perfectly knows what he is trying to do, though we can pretty much guess that he will soon be disbarred for his actions.
Every other actor or actress in this film (besides Al Pacino and Lee Strasberg) plays their parts magnificently – as types. Nobody else besides Arthur and Sam are fully developed characters. None of them are really required to do so when teamed up with Arthur going through his various antics. Forsythe in particular plays his part so well that we forget that such a psychopath would likely have been caught long before becoming such a high standing citizen in the community. Again, it doesn’t matter. This is a character study of someone trying to do the right thing while facing the almost impossible obstacles many truly good men will inevitably encounter. The norm is for the good man to comply with the arbitrary rules set down by those from “above.” So when Pacino yells and shouts and could almost be said to overact, we still get carried away and cheer for him - hopefully knowing that what he is doing is something most of us would never do, and also knowing that he will be punished for his actions.
© Robert S. Miller 2009