And Justice For All Review

Norman Jewison is a director whose films tend to be impeccably liberal, totally professional and just a little bit dull. For every classic like In The Heat of The Night there are two worthy clinkers like Agnes Of God. However he occasionally comes out with something that is powerfully effective despite its flaws; And Justice For All is one of those films. It sometimes lurches into silly slapstick and is often obvious and heavy-handed, but the material itself is so shockingly believable that it makes the movie much more shocking than you might expect.

Al Pacino, in one of his best performances (for once, he doesn't go over the top until the end), plays Arthur Kirkland, a successful Baltimore lawyer. Kirkland is brilliant but frustrated; we first see him in jail for contempt of court after he has taken a swing at the ultra-right wing Judge Fleming (Forsythe). He is passionate about helping his clients but is all too often unable to do so because of the flaws in the system. His colleagues are similarly exasperated with the hoops they have to jump through, notably Jay (Tambor) who is driven mad by the knowledge that he has successfully defended a murderer who has gone on to kill two children. The system seems totally inadequate, rewarding the wealthy, corrupt and guilty and destroying the innocent. Kirkland's particular problem is McCullagh, an innocent man who has been imprisoned on circumstantial evidence and who is still in prison because the evidence which would exonerate him was submitted three days late. When he confronts the Judge with this, Fleming replies, "I don't give a shit about your client." On top of this, Kirkland is required to go before a legal ethics committee which is more concerned with trapping small time offenders than exposing big-time corruption. His only friends seem to be the increasingly insane Jay, the dangerously suicidal Judge Rayford (Warden) who controls his court with a concealed pistol, and Gail (Lahti), a member of the ethics committee. In other words, Kirkland is slowly sinking. Then, at the worst possible time, Judge Fleming is arrested for the rape and beating of a young girl and bribes Kirkland into defending him.

This is all rather scatter-shot stuff and this makes it less effective as satire than it should be. Wheras in M*A*S*H*, Altman had a strong central focus on which to pin his satire of the military, Jewison adopts the Paddy Chayefsky approach - see the excellent The Hospital and Network - of hitting out at everything and screaming a loud cry of despair. Individual details are often funny and the dialogue is constantly witty and surprising, but it's all so negative that you can't help feeling a bit exhausted by the end. What saves the story, however, is that the stories depicted are horribly realistic. The sad story of Ralph, the black transvestite who we see brutalised in police custody at the start and who loses probation through the laziness of his attorney, is genuinely shocking and while the resolution of the McCullagh story is too melodramatic, the situation is potent and carefully built. In contrast, the Judge Fleming plot-line, where all the issues sort of come together, is a bit predictable and all too obviously designed to give Pacino a big grandstanding speech at the end - see most other Pacino films, notably Scent Of A Woman. The character of Fleming is cliched but just on the right edge of parody (John Forsythe's remarkably cold and precise performance helps here and makes one regret that he got trapped in "Dynasty" for the rest of his career).

Generally, however, this is Pacino's film and he comes through with a fine performance that is carefully shaded and surprisingly subtle. He tones down his extrovert persona and makes Kirkland thoroughly believable as a jobbing member of the legal profession. This makes his OTT showing off at the end more acceptable than in his more recent films where the whole performance has been a thick slice of ham. In particular, the scenes with his elderly grandfather (the legendary Strasberg) are heartbreaking and beautifully judged. Every other character in the movie is a stereotype, albeit a stereotype intended to make a point, and the actors are fine with the limited material they are offered. Jack Warden is fun as the crazy Judge, obsessed with his helicopter - a memorably funny scene is when he takes Kirkland for a spin - but his character melts away at the end. Christine Lahti fares less well; she has a lovely, warm presence and she delivers her lines with a nice spin, but in the second half of the film she has nothing to do except offer some demeaning sideline support to her bloke.

Jewison displays his usual professionalism and juggles the various balls of the plot with some skill. There's nothing unusual here but the film does cohere and resolve rather than falling apart and that's quite an achievement. The location shooting in Baltimore is a major plus adding a valuable level of reality to what threatens to be an over-hysterical picture. The script by a pre-Diner Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin is often razor sharp - they write superb one-liners - but less sure in construction, with two key emotional climaxes coming on top of each other. However, the only serious misstep is the music score. Dave Grusin is a great jazz musician, but his music is totally out of place here; the opening theme is like a tune for a bad sitcom. This is, in fact, the one thing that seriously dates the film. Otherwise, it has aged very well.

If my praise of the film sounds a bit grudging, it's simply because this material is so potentially powerful and horrifying that the end result seems a little bit too tame. At its best, it has sharp teeth and a hefty kick, but too much of it is dawdling around the margins of the subject. This is not unusual for Jewison's films - he has very honourable intentions but the end products are a bit bland. He relies heavily on his leading actors - Denzel Washington, for example, or Rod Steiger - to shock the films into life. Luckily, he has Pacino here, and it's his brilliant performance that makes And Justice For All come together.

The Disc

This is a release from Columbia which is perfectly acceptable without being great. Columbia have become one of the more reliable distributors in the UK, so I have higher expectations of them than other studios. This makes this disc seem slightly worse on first impression than it actually is.

The picture quality is adequate but not great. There is a lot of surface grain present and the picture is generally rather soft and lacking detail. The colours also seem a little muted and this gives the image a flat, TV-Movie style appearance. However, the contrast is good and there is no obvious print damage. The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1.

The soundtrack is straightforward mono, which is as you would expect from a film of this vintage. It sounds fine with clear dialogue and no obvious defects. The music is irritating, but that's not a problem with the disc.

The extras consist of the usual brief cast biographies, the theatrical trailer - unremarkable - and, more substantially, an audio commentary from the director. This is actually quite good, so don't be put off by the deadly first ten minutes where he speaks very slowly and takes an age to say nothing of any great interest. But once he gets going he makes some interesting observations and is clearly very proud of the film. Not one you'll be desperate to listen to again though, I suspect.

The menus are static and there are 28 chapter stops. The usual wide range of subtitles is included.

This isn't a great film by any means but it is a surprisingly effective one. For fans of Pacino it is essential viewing and there's enough substance to appeal to a wider audience. The DVD is adequate as far as it goes but the retail price is rather too high for what is on offer.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
5 out of 10
Audio
5 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

5

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 20:26:48

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