Thursday 11 August 2011

...And Justice for All. (1979)


Today we continue our filmic look into the world of the law, and it continues to be a sad and sordid world for those in the legal profession. For all the idealism of justice being served, the guilty being locked up and the innocent protected from the criminal element, the reality seems to be a far cry from this. The legal system is a maelstrom of legal jargon, bureaucratic jumbling, back-room deals and raging egos. The system is there to dispense justice, but to serve the people who can play the game the best. Here, the guilty get off on technicalities and the innocent get unjustly locked up because their court-appointed attorney couldn’t care less about them. Ethics? Morals? These are bad things for a lawyer to hold onto.

Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino), an idealistic defence attorney in Baltimore, cares about his clients more than any other lawyer, which frequently puts him at odds with others in the legal system. His rough caseload is weighted further when Judge Fleming (John Forsythe), a by-the-book tyrant Arthur hates, demands that Arthur defend him when he is accused of sexually assaulting on a young woman.

Writers Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson paint a vivid picture with the script to …And Justice for All. The world they’ve created is populated with a varied swirl of characters, perfectly designed to tell their story. Almost all of the lawyers are amoral sharpshooters, who only want to win the case to keep their game alive; the judges are lunatics and tyrants, given to revel in the amount of power they hold over people; the police are incompetent bullies, taken to making fun of the obviously weaker elements that cross their path. How exactly can justice be won in this kind of environment? It’s almost like a reworking of Kafka’s The Trial, only this time Josef K is represented in Arthur Kirkland, the one honest guy in town. The depth of the legal woes befalling system are directed towards Arthur, who spends virtually all of his time trying to help an innocent man who’s been stuck in jail for over a year, trying to defend a transvestite who’s too afraid of the system to survive in it, trying to defend himself in front of an ethics committee. He’s forced to yell, beg and cajole people into getting help when he needs it. That so much is packed into the film is a testament to the writing on show.

Honestly, Norman Jewison’s direction isn’t really his best work. The opening credit sequence, a short montage of courtrooms and buildings with the American pledge of allegiance as recited by some, no doubt, very cute little kids, sets things up badly. Its cuteness just makes the film seem like a crossover between Law & Order and Sesame Street. The music for the film is also something of a tonal misfire. It’s too jaunty, too whimsical, too much like a lighter episode of Cagney & Lacey. This level of inconsistency is rather obvious throughout. At times, it seems like the hard-bitten legal drama that’s expected, but other times it feels more like a romance of sorts, and other times make it seem like a flat-out comedy. The scene in which Judge Rayford takes Arthur for a helicopter flight is really funny, but is nevertheless a bit out of place in the overall effort. Also, look back up at that tagline at the top, which utterly mis-sells the nature of the film's story. It doesn’t leave you feeling as battered as some other films with the same problem do, but it still compromises the full intention of the piece. And the film itself ends badly, with a rather bizarre bit of humour that completely defuses the big moment of catharsis from only a moment before.

That we are able to really the feel the journey of these characters is not because of Jewison’s direction, but the talent of the superb cast assembled. John Forsythe’s Judge Fleming is a smug, nasty piece of work. He has the look of someone who enjoys the position of power, the ability to dominate those weaker than him. Forsythe is damn good. Jeffrey Tambor, here in his feature film debut, is hilarious and tragic in equal measure. The scene where he arrives drunk at Pacino’s door at two in the morning is played beautifully by Tambor. Jack Warden is great as Judge Rayford, a guy straight out of the Wild West, but utterly suicidal as well. Lee Strasberg and Sam Levene make for superb watching, both of them wonderfully affecting and heartfelt. However, it’s Pacino’s show all the way. In fact, it’s the power of Pacino’s performance that really directs this film, not Jewison. In the hands of someone less capable, the film would feel much more episodic, like a series of legally-themed vignettes. As it is, Pacino is able to play each scene so very well, but is also able to maintain a consistency throughout. It’s superb work from the man.

If there is one thing to hobble the film somewhat, beyond the problems with the direction, it’s the feeling that some people may get that it’s just a bunch of liberal wailing. To be fair, they would have a point. So much of the time is spent saying that there’s something wrong with the system, the system is broken, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” However, there’s little in the way of addressing anything like a solution. Now, of course it’s the point of the film to highlight a serious societal problem in the hope of making a change for the better. That’s what most art tries to do. However, many people watching will find this unwelcome, and more than a little biased. For a film about justice, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of balance. Cops here are only incompetent; judges are only insane; committees are only useless; only the innocent are imprisoned; only the guilty are freed. Yes, okay, something is clearly wrong here… but only in this world that you’ve created for the film. In reality, not all cops are incompetent, not all judges are insane. You may feel like cheering when Arthur makes his big speech at the end, decrying the system and how it gets used, but some people will just feel like they’re on the receiving end of an unwelcome sermon. If you’re looking to push for change in society, you’re not going to get much done if you instantly alienate half of the audience. The spirit is commendable, but the tactics may backfire.

…And Justice for All. is a rather uneven picture, with Jewison occasionally losing focus on just what kind of picture he’s making. Also, the script, though otherwise a fine work, will turn some off with the rather confused “liberal” bent. However, it’s the acting that really drives the picture, and Al Pacino is on stellar form here. The performances and the genuinely good moments of drama in the picture are enough to warrant the watch, so long as you overlook the tonal shifts.

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