…And Justice For All (1979)
Written by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson
Directed by Norman Jewison
By the late 1970s, Norman Jewison had returned to his home country of Canada. He was getting reliable work and was known for being a director who would get the job done. Jewison would never become someone lumped into the auteur camp; he would be known more as journeyman director. This term refers to filmmakers who lack a distinct style and can take jobs in a multitude of genres delivering movies that range from adequate to fantastic. While directors like Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg are known for trademarks images or tones, Jewison was comfortable maneuvering into a much more varied territory. Just before …And Justice For All, he has directed FIST, a union drama loosely based on Jimmy Hoffa. The film was well-received by critics as a decent movie but nothing spectacular. This courtroom drama would be seen as an improvement, delivering an emotionally powerful story.
Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) is a Baltimore defense attorney who has garnered a reputation as a firebrand. We meet him as he’s being released from jail after punching Judge Fleming while arguing a case. More details of that case are revealed during the picture, and we learn it was centered around Jeff McCullagh. McCullagh was stopped for a broken taillight, and his name was the same as a man wanted for murder. The system quickly moved the young man along, and he’s now spent a year and a half in the county jail waiting to get his name cleared. Arthur found the evidence, but Fleming ruled it inadmissible due to a deadline technicality.
These sorts of small defeats stack up for Arthur throughout the film. He takes on another client, Ralph Agee, a Black gay man who crossdresses. Ralph was arrested as an accessory to a taxi robbery done by his partner. Arthur desperately wants to keep Ralph out of jail because he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A legal ethics commission has been formed, claiming they want to “root out corruption” among defense attorneys in the system. Arthur rightfully sees this as theater, a grand gesture that ignores the rotten core of the justice system. His grandfather’s dementia worsens, he begins dating a member of the ethics committee, and his partner suffers a nervous breakdown after a client he cleared murders two children. Then the bomb drops.
Arthur is told by his colleague that Judge Fleming has been charged with a young woman’s rape and violent assault. He finds it amusing until Fleming requests Arthur as his lawyer. The reasoning behind this is that their public conflict would indicate Fleming’s innocence as Arthur wouldn’t represent him otherwise. Fleming won’t answer Arthur’s direct questions about his guilt or innocence, which raises the attorney’s suspicions. When he rejects the case, Fleming leans into blackmail bringing up a potential attorney-client breach of confidentiality that could ruin Arthur with the witch-hunting committee.
There are moments where …And Justice For All gets a little heavy-handed, and it can be a confusing whirlwind of characters and subplots. As I was watching this, I thought it would make for a fantastic television series with more time to develop the stories of all these characters. That said, it is a pretty wonderful comedy-drama, and Pacino is incredibly entertaining. Having watched Scorsese’s films recently, I am reevaluating my thoughts on the old DeNiro versus Pacino debate. I think Pacino is the better actor of the two. DeNiro is great in things like Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, but he doesn’t have the range Pacino possesses. Pacino can move from charming & charismatic to intense emotional breakdown so effortlessly. I just don’t think DeNiro has that in him.
I was delighted with this film’s depiction of corruption. American society often leans into wanting to talk about corrupt people without contending with the systems that produce and encourage them. Arthur brings this up to Gail (Christine Lahti), the lawyer he’s dating. He points out how judges and the district attorney’s office are doing far more evil things than his fellow defense attorneys. Arthur also reminds her about the emotional toll on lawyers in a system where they are expected to defend people they know have done horrible things. Arthur never once argues that these people don’t deserve a robust defense; instead, he points out that these lawyers need some sort of emotional support because it’s complicated for a person to work in this system. Jewison is at his best when he is addressing some kind of social justice issue. He never feels overly preachy and creates interesting and complex characters around these situations. Today, so many films in this subgenre will slam you over the head overtly with the themes. Jewison’s characters represent the themes, so we see them in the story.