...And Justice for All

(1979) ** 1/2 R
119 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Norman Jewison. Cast: Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe, Lee Strasberg, Jeffrey Tambor.

When my film education kicked into high gear during my young adulthood, it didn't take me long to idolize my Italian-American brethren: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Al Pacino. Hungry for more after such '70s heights as The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, I came upon Norman Jewison's ...And Justice for All. An impressionable lad, I fell for its outrageous, yet distinctively '70s vibe, built in that "tick...tick...tick...BOOM" style so many later Pacino flicks would employ: screw-tightening action rising to a show-stopping monologue climax.

...And Justice for All's famous "You're out of order!" trial-opening, film-closing argument catches Pacino at a full boil sincere and anguished enough to deserve its Oscar nomination, but even Pacino at the top of his game, Jewison grasping for Lumet status, and co-screenwriter Barry Levinson combined aren't enough to mask that ...And Justice for All needs a lot of excusing. Now that I've gotten on in years, the film's lack of faith in its audience is glaringly apparent.

Pacino plays Arthur Kirkland, a defense lawyer tiring quickly of the legal corruption that leaves his clients high and dry in a Kafkaesque system. The worst offender is Judge Fleming (John Forsythe), who has, at picture's outset, just jailed Kirkland on a contempt charge. Fleming winds up a defendant himself in a sensational rape trial; ironically he comes to Kirkland for a defense in both the courtroom and the court of public opinion (surely a lawyer antagonistic to the judge would never take him as a client unless he were innocent).

Even those who flunked every English class they ever took could walk away from ...And Justice for All and tell you its theme: the American judicial system is crazy. How do we know? The judges are crazy, the lawyers are crazy, and the clients are crazy. By extension, the law and the system are both crazy as well. And in case we miss the point as expressed in behavior and incident, Levinson and co-screenwriter Valerie Curtin embed it in the dialogue as often as possible ("You're talking crazy," etc.).

I won't detail all this craziness, which comprises nearly every scene in the film, but revisited in the 21st century, it's enough to make one wonder if TV's writer-producer David E. Kelley (Boston Legal) based most of his career on it (Levinson tried and failed at the time to sell ...And Justice for All to network TV). Aside from the emphatic notice of location (...And Justice for All being, seemingly, the first film shot on location in Baltimore), Levinson and Curtin give us wacky clients (one tells a judge he's "a douchebag" and a suicidal judge (the late, great Jack Warden), who lunches on a ledge, carries firearms around the courthouse, and plays chicken with his helicopter's gas tank.

As one lawyer puts it, "People are getting real pissed off at the law these days," but the critique of the judicial system is too over the top to register any coherent critiques: it's obvious that a judge who admits to a lawyer's face that his jailed client is innocent (but doesn't care and won't do anything about it) is dead wrong, but are the problems of the system this black and white? Rarely if ever, making Levinson's satire a series of shotgun blasts at the broad side of a white-pillared barn. Some of the stories are no doubt based in Levinson's research, but crammed into the film's action of a week or two, the absurdity goes beyond a breaking point. In search of melodrama to balance the comedy, Levinson and Curtin likewise go overboard, with redundant mortal crises for Kirkland's clients, men ill-equipped to deal with the terrors of B-more lockdowns.

Still, not for nothing did ...And Justice for All capture my teenage imagination. It's crammed with great character actors, including Craig T. Nelson, Jeffrey Tambor, Dominic Chianese, and Lee Strasberg--Pacino's acting mentor--as Pacino's grandfather, their scenes carrying a special depth of authentic emotion on Pacino's part. Plus, Christine Lahti makes her screen debut as a lawyer who generates politcal and sexual heat with Kirkland. Though none does his or her best work here, all add to the film's '70s cachet. So do composer Dave Grusin (though this particular score is rather dated) and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon). Warts and all, Jewison's film will endure, continuing to raise hackles in ways intended and unintended.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 3/11/2008

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

After putting its widescreen DVD debut out of print for years, ...And Justice for All finally returns in a boffo special edition that banishes an unnecessary full-frame option and upgrades a mono soundtrack to surround sound. The film's appearance and sound are more than adequate for a nearly thirty-year-old comedy-drama. The transfer shows its age, with inconsistent black level and a somewhat soft, grainy look. But the hi-def master looks as good as it's ever looked (or ever will look, I'm convinced) on any pre-hi-def medium, and nothing short of a film restoration would improve it.

The extras are surprisingly thorough, beginning with the original disc's gregarious commentary by director Norman Jewison, who covers all aspects of the film's development and production. The special edition also retains the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:35), presented here in scratchy anamorphic widescreen. New to DVD are four "Deleted Scenes" (totalling 10:52, with a "Play All" feature), also in beat-up but anamorphic widescreen: "Fleming's Office," "Jay Sharpens Pencil," "Thanksgiving Basketball Game," and "Jeff in Hospital." Each is a treat, providing a few more bits of vintage Pacino.

Another section titled "Norman Jewison: The Testimony of the Director" (12:14, with a "Play All" option) puts Jewison in front of a camera to discuss the most salient points regarding his film: "On the choices we make...", "On the unleashing of Al Pacino...", "On the search for truth and justice...", "On the delicate balance...", "On the way things work...", "On the reaction to the film...", and "On the lost scene...", explaining a brief, worthwhile scene added back into the main feature on this presentation of the film.

Next is "Barry Levinson: Cross-Examining the Screenwriter" (6:55, with "Play All" option), a shorter but enlightening chat covering "Why ...And Justice for All", "Is this a drama or a comedy?", "Discuss being out of order...", "Is there an injustice for all?", "Tell us about the 'system'...", and "When did it become a courtroom drama?" Given the film's strategic release date as a ramp-up to the release of Pacino's new film, there's also a "Behind-the-Scenes Sneak Peek at 88 Minutes" (10:34). Beyond clips from the film, it provides comments from the cast and crew (Pacino included) about the film's premise and characters. It's more of an EPK than a fleeting teaser, which is nice for the kind of die-hard Pacino fans likely to pick up the disc.

Adding yet more value to the disc is the pilot episode of Damages, also available from Sony; the TV thriller has legal drama in common with the feature. Lastly, Sony includes trailers for Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition, Taxi Driver: Limited Collector's Edition, Comanche Moon, Damages, and Hot Action Movies. Pacino fans won't want to miss collecting ...And Justice for All's Oscar-nominated performance.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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