Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more jaded by the tropes of courtroom dramas. I despise the dim courtroom illuminated only by dramatic shafts of light almost as much as I despise the canned gavel-pounding outbursts of judicial disdain almost as much as I despise the smug condescension of know-better sanctimonies like 12 Angry Men. My favorite of all the old Hollywood courtroom dramas is Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which revels in the absurdity of legal dysfunction and has no answer but to shrug its shoulders and laugh in the face of misfortune. While not nearly as sharp as that James Stewart classic, Norman Jewison’s And Justice for All (1979) is from the same, frustrated, cynical mold, and goes through its chaotic paces with an excellent New Hollywood cast that helps it bridge its more awkward melodramas.
Al Pacino stars as Arthur Kirkland, a tireless Baltimore defense attorney who, in most other movies, might be described as “at a breaking point;” except in And Justice for All Arthur’s tenuous grip on sanity is nevertheless more sound than average. Between self-destructive clients and stubborn jurists, and backroom deals between self-interested lawyers who are insulated from the consequences of their indifference, the courtrooms of Baltimore are depicted like a carnival of dysfunction and distress.
Written by Barry Levinson and Jane Curtin, And Justice for All attempts to make its miseries palatable by highlighting their craziest repercussions, most prominently via the characters played by Jack Warden and Jeffrey Tambor, respectively a suicidal maverick judge and a defense lawyer who can’t square his conscience with his professionalism. On the darker side, And Justice for All attempts to show the devastation suffered by poor and powerless defendants who are sometimes treated as little more than bargaining chips in the process. During these more serious segments, the movie veers a little too far into 1970s-TV-quality melodrama; the results are uneven, especially with one piled on top of another in such quick succession. Better is the frank consideration of how individual lawyers cope with the relentless compromise and frustration which cloud the idealism of truth and justice.
While And Justice for All is best known for Pacino’s deservedly quotable outburst of “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! This whole trial is out of order!” its depiction of the personal toll of legal disorder is especially subtle and poignant as explored through the strained romantic relationship between Arthur and a sometimes adversarial attorney played by Christine Lahti. Their attraction is both a cause and a casualty of their tension; their pillow talk includes heated discussions followed by resigned admissions like, “You know there are times when I’m not too sure I like you.” Interestingly, Arthur, contrary to his often strident tone, is regularly on the wrong side of many of the arguments regarding legal ethics, and creates some of his own problems through disorganization and corner-cutting. He’s not an idealized lawyer, even though he might think he is the only one still pursuing the ideals. This dynamic gives And Justice for All a shaggy kind of appeal as he fumbles through the tangle of unsolvable issues and arrives at sometimes wrong conclusions with the same fragile humanity that creates the mess. Pacino is such an honest performer that Arthur is easy to believe and believe in even when his passion is short-sighted or when the writing behind his naivety begs credulity.
Although I have previously declared that I could watch Pacino do anything, I did discover an exception here: eating an eggroll. I could do without watching that happen again, but otherwise And Justice for All is prime-era Pacino giving his usual 200% in an appealing if sometimes middling mainstream drama that has a sense of humor and a practical intolerance for its troubling questions.