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Reframe: And Justice For All

When …And Justice For All was released October 19, 1979, it was reasonably well received by critics and moviegoers. Reviews were generally positive, it was very profitable, and scored an Oscar nomination for Al Pacino’s lead role as exhausted Baltimore defense attorney Arthur Kirkland, as well as Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson’s grounded but satirical screenplay.

However, what it’s mostly remembered for is Pacino’s opening statement defending a corrupt judge (played by a never better John Forsythe) charged with rape. I’m willing to bet more people are aware of the heavily quoted and memed “You’re out of order!” scene than have actually seen the movie.

Time has not been all that kind to the film itself. Coming at the tail end of Pacino’s golden 70’s run, there seems to be a perception of the film as a bit of an “underwhelmer”. One of those pictures that’s “not quite there.” I mean really, when is the last time anyone talked to you about the “greatness” of …And Justice For All?

I watched it again recently and was struck by how unfair its middling reputation is. Aside from being wildly entertaining, it was prescient as hell.

Sure, there have been plenty of films about the inequality of the legal system as it relates to women, minorities, and the poor. We’ve seen plenty of those. I don’t know if all that many have done it better than this. Looking at it in hindsight, I feel pretty confident about that statement.

Director Norman Jewison handles the tone changes like the pro he is. Deftly transitioning from the mundane horror of the trading lives that goes on between attorneys looking to settle a case before trial, and Jack Warden’s darkly hilarious suicidal judge, attempting to shoot himself with a shotgun, but not quite being able to reach the trigger. Like this film, Jewison’s reputation seems to have settled below that of a major filmmaker. An opinion his resume would argue against heartily.

I’ll get to the main plot line involving Forsythe in a moment, but before that, let me address two significant subplots.

The first involves Thomas Waites as Jeff McCullaugh. A man convicted of murder due to mistaken identity. New evidence has come to light after a year and a half that would exonerate McCullaugh if only Forsythe’s judge Henry T. Fleming would review it.

Fleming continually slow walks the case and denies the appeal. Kirkland visits McCullaugh in prison, to tell him he just needs more time. He finds his client has been brutalized behind bars and about to come loose from his tether. Later in the film, he takes a weapon from a guard and ends up being gunned down by a sharpshooter just as Kirkland starts to convince him to stand down.

Then there is the plight of the transgendered Ralph Agee, played beautifully by Robert Christian. Picked up for a minor offense, Kirkland asks a partner to cover for him in court with a corrected probation report that should keep Agee out of jail. Unfortunately, he shows up late and unprepared. Agee is sent to jail, where he later hangs himself.

Which brings us to the main focus of the film. Kirkland’s defense of Fleming. A man accused of beating and raping a prostitute. Forsythe’s Fleming is one of the most irredeemable characters you will ever see on film. He is like that tenured professor who no longer cares (if he ever did) about the people who come before him. Deeply ensconced in his profession, but not worthy of it. Inhumane and unrepentant. To come before Fleming in the court room is to be at the mercy of the merciless.

When Kirkland learns that Fleming, by his own admission, raped the woman and would like to do it again, he spirals in the court room. It’s some serious master class stuff from Pacino. Alternately comedic and tragic. Often in the same moment.

Softly at first, Kirkland makes light of the prosecution’s flimsy case. Fleming is pleased. Then it becomes clear that something more is churning within Arthur Kirkland. A single tear rolls down his eye. He twice is admonished by Warden’s judge for bringing up an inadmissible lie detector test his client cleared. Louder now. More strained he becomes.

Warden tells him he is out of order. Leading to the “You’re out of order” crescendo. Only it isn’t the crescendo. What comes next is Pacino at full volume taking down not only his client – “My client, the honorable Henry T. Fleming should go right to fucking jail!”, but the entire legal system itself. “It’s only a show! It’s let’s make a deal!” As he is dragged from the court room, he shouts “I have now completed my opening statement!”

It is hysterically funny, anxiety ridden, and terrifying. It is Pacino at the peak of his powers.

As I mentioned before, it may be the only reason why anyone knows a thing about …And Justice For All.

Perhaps it’s positive, if relatively modest, reception at the time has left it resting on a lower tier. Maybe by comparison to The Godfather, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, it’s seen as lesser Pacino.

Taken on its own terms, outside of the context of its day, and Pacino’s hottest of hot streaks, it is a near masterpiece of satirical drama. It is an indictment of a process that treats those on the margins with an almost wanton disregard.

Take a look at our current day. Yes, there have been some advances in the way gay people, minorities, and women are seen in society.

Yet we still must fight against bathroom laws and for military inclusion for the transgendered. We still have a system of enforcement that leaves people of color without fair regard, and often without life. We still have a need for a #MeToo movement. We still have white men in positions of power who get away with the most deplorable behavior.

We have for-profit prisons where rehabilitation is secondary to keeping the incarceration rate high so the money keeps flowing. We have black men shouting, “I can’t breathe” and little black boys being gunned down in under three seconds for playing with a toy rifle in a park. We have people fighting to be seen as who they are, who they identify as, struggling to get a wedding cake made, to use public facilities. And we are lorded over my pale-faced men at the highest levels of government, entertainment, and so many other professions who take from women what they want as if they were born with the entitlement to do so.

Looking at this film through that lens. Seeing Arthur Kirkland wail “They are just people!” when he sees those lacking the stature of the well-heeled being treated as anything but. To see that which was common then still be so today, I find …And Justice For All to not only be ahead of its time, but of our time.

Its message is not to be ignored.