Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Flick of The Day: And Justice For All...

Perhaps best remembered today for Al Pacino's ranting monologue which ends the film, or perhaps for the various pastiches and homages of it, today's flick of the day is Norman Jewison's And Justice For All... A big hit in its day garnering another Oscar nomination for Pacino, it is a film which is rarely given its due in comparison to other films of the era for two reasons. Firstly it is possessed of a truly dire late 70's Disco soundtrack that would not be out of place in an episode of Cagney & Lacey and which dates the film horribly getting in the way of what is a fine tale. The second reason is the inconsistent tone of the picture, veering from a courtroom drama to light comedy, leaving the viewer never quite sure whether it is fish or foul. This is unfortunate because at its heart is a decent story of good versus evil and one of Al Pacino's more varied performances of the decade that built his reputation as perhaps the best actor of his generation. 
Al Pacino is Arthur Kirkland, a rabble rousing but ultimately idealistic young lawyer working the courthouse in Baltimore. As the film opens we meet Arthur's varied cast of clients from wealthy philanderer's like Dominic Chianese's Carl to downtrodden folk seeking justice. It becomes apparent that Arthur is not your average lawyer, with an almost unrealistic zeal for the truth, exemplified by his willingness to attempt to knock out a Judge he felt was obstructing his case. Indeed at the beginning of film, Arthur is in present for contempt of court for this attempted assault on Judge Fleming, played with a dark sliminess by John Forsythe. It is this kind of farcical event that leaves you unsure of the true tone of the film. How often outside of Hollywood could a lawyer punch a Judge and still practice law? In any case, the thrust of the movie revolves around the arrest and trial of the aforementioned Judge for a brutal rape. You would imagine Arthur would be delighted to see his nemesis get his comeuppance and perhaps he is though no sooner has he digested the news of the arrest that he is approached by Judge Fleming  to act as his defence in the trial. Fleming proceeds to coerce Arthur into taking his case on, promising to see him disbarred otherwise. Arthur's attempts to exonerate this odious Judge are at the centre of the film though they are only one strand of the various problems and sub-plots that beset Arthur before his final showdown in court. Will he defend a man he hates?
Pacino excels in the role of Arthur, perhaps because it is so different to the usual performances we have becomes used to over the years. Much like his equally talented colleague Robert De Niro, over the past 15 years or so Pacino has retreated into playing a pastiche of himself. No matter the role, Pacino's characters are the always over the top and loud. There is nothing wrong with this per se, it just feels like he is operating within himself, not pushing for the performance. Perhaps this is natural in middle age but is a delight to seem him a young man again in the role of Arthur, giving the kind of wild eyed and varied performance he can deliver. 

"You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order! That man, that sick, crazy, depraved man, raped and beat that woman there, and he'd like to do it again! He *told* me so! It's just a show! It's a show! It's "Let's Make A Deal"! "Let's Make A Deal"! Hey Frank, you wanna "Make A Deal"? I got an insane judge who likes to beat the shit out of women! Whaddya wanna gimme Frank, 3 weeks probation?"

If one Judge is Arthur's nemesis then another is the closest thing he has to friend. A criminally underused Jack Warden is Judge Rayford, an interesting character who is semi-suicidal but has a fondness for Arthur yet this is never developed too deeply.
Great performances aside, it is difficult to get past the tonal shifts that cause the film to stutter. One moment, the film is almost biting in its social commentary on the dark corruption endemic at the lower levels of the American Justice system and the next is some grand farce with Arthur taking his fear of flying up in a helicopter ride above the city with Warden's Judge Rayford in a scene that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of M.A.S.H. It is unfortunate because if Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin's script could have taken a tone and stuck to it, this could have been a classic rather then just a film that has more positives then negatives. The is essential cinema if only to see the development of cinema in the late '70s and for the work of Pacino, but it could have been more. C'est la vie.

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