48. ...And Justice for All (1979)

Director: Norman Jewison

Starring: Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe, Lee Strasberg, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Lahti, Craig T. Nelson

It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it. I can’t imagine the pressure of being a defense attorney. Sometimes you have to defend people you KNOW are guilty, and yet still argue a case for their acquittal. Sometimes the judges you work with themselves are untrustworthy characters. Sometimes, the pressure of the job gets to them, too. Such are elements that the story of “..And Justice for All” plays around with.

Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) is a defense lawyer in Baltimore, and when we first meet him, he has landed himself in jail for throwing a punch at a certain Judge Henry T. Fleming (John Forsythe). It seems that Arthur’s defendant was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with a name that just so happened to be the same as a fugitive wanted for murder. Arthur’s client has already lost a year and a half of his life over this miscarriage of justice, and Arthur is determined to get him out. But Judge Fleming threw out the evidence Arthur had presented because it was delivered late, and this offended Arthur to the point of violence. After his release, Arthur takes on another client, a transgender woman involved in a taxi cab robbery.

While all of this is weighing down on him, Arthur also visits his grandfather (Lee Strasberg), who is gradually losing his mind, at the nursing home. He grows weary of having to remind his grandfather, who used to be his guardian after his parents left him, that he is in fact a laywer and not a law student. If his nerves weren’t already racked enough, Arthur learns one day that Judge Fleming has been arrested on a rape charge…. and guess who he wants as his defense attorney? Arthur must then weigh his options: either take the case and perform to the best of his ability, or be disbarred.

As always, Al Pacino proves just why he’s one of the greatest actors in the world. He was nominated for Best Actor, but as “Kramer vs. Kramer” was sucking up all the major awards in 1979, he’d be passed over. Truly a miscarriage of justice. But he’s only one of the reasons that this movie works so well. John Forsythe, who rarely ever played the bad guy, is so effective at making you hate Judge Fleming that you can’t wait to see Arthur bring this creep down. The character of Judge Rayford (Jack Warden), who seems to have something of a death wish, is so loony tunes that you don’t know what he’ll do or say next. The helicopter scene is a can’t-miss. Let’s not forget Jeffrey Tambor. His portrayal of Arthur’s unstable defense lawyer friend Jay Porter is alternatively sad and hilarious. Really, it’s his character who best echoes the duality of the movie’s tone.

“…And Justice for All” is an intriguing look into the hypocrisy and corruption of the justice system. This is a subject that is as relevant now as it was over thirty years ago. How many high-profile televised trials have we seen just recently that didn’t turn out the way we expected them to or believed they should? Fortunately, we weren’t the ones who had to sit in the courtroom day after day and argue those cases for one side or the other, or surely we would be driven crazy, too.

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