At times deadly earnest and incongruously surreal, Norman Jewison’s 1979 film "...And Justice for All" still sucker punches in its audacious indictment of the corruption and abuse rampant within the legal system. In the generation since its release, looking back through the filter of numerous "trials of the century" in the ensuing years and our current obsession with judge shows, the film’s cynical take on justice American style turns out to have been remarkably prescient. Watching the film again on Columbia TriStar’s new DVD edition and listening to Norman Jewison’s reminiscences twenty-two years after the fact, one reels at just how gone our courts now stand and lament how studio movies once had a conscience.
Al Pacino, at his histrionic peak, plays Arthur Kirkland, an idealistic lawyer adrift in the hostile environment of Baltimore’s criminal courts. He bears daily witness to attorneys playing with clients lives like pieces on a game board and finds that the ideals he tries to maintain are the very thing that isolates him from his colleagues and the system. When he is chosen as lead defense counsel by a respected judge (played with generous venom by John Forsythe) accused of rape, Kirkland finds himself caught in a tangled legal and political web, his own integrity manipulated against him with seemingly no way for either justice to prevail or his beliefs to remain intact.
The script by Barry Levinson (of "Diner" and "Rain Man" fame) and Valerie Curtin revels in its anti-institution coda. Juxtaposed against Kirkland’s fight for truth is a host of outlandish characters, worthy of a hero’s epic quest. There’s the semi-suicidal judge Rayford (Jack Warden), who packs a pistol in court and eats his lunch amongst the pigeons on the outside ledge of the courthouse. When Kirkland locks horns with Judge Fleming to allow evidence that will free one of his clients arrested for a broken tail light and through a fluke got jail time, the judge disallows it on a technicality, citing that "he’d be back in jail on something else." Yet when Fleming faces trial, he dangles that legal carrot in front of Kirkland to accept his case.
True to ‘70s cinema form, every avenue of hope and reconciliation encounters seemingly insurmountable obstacles, giving the protagonist two chances: acquiescence or moral obliteration. Indeed, Rayford’s blasé description of Kirkland’s situation (chapter 15) also symbolized the distrustful gaze the popular arts viewed toward the establishment at that time. Where I find the film lacking is in an underdeveloped romantic sub-plot with Kirkland and an equally headstrong lawyer (a young Christine Lahti in her first movie role) trying to ferret out corruption as a member of an ethics committee.
The double-sided DVD offers the video in two flavors: 1.85 anamorphic and full-screen. Both transfers stem from the same exceptionally clean source, yielding sharp images. Deep, clean black levels keep the desaturated colors of Victor Kemper’s austere cinematography intact, with no film grain or blemishes detectable in each instance. Fleshtones look natural, albeit with a slightly orange tint creeping in intermittently. The letterboxed transfer looks compositionally better, with the characters and environment balanced within the matted frame. In full-screen, sometimes the characters seem off-center with the camera and comparison indicates that for the addition of headroom we do lose some information on the sides. Interestingly, I actually found myself watching the full-screen version over again in many parts (my analysis stems from the widescreen version). Kudos to Columbia TriStar for fulfilling the promise of DVD here in giving consumers a choice of viewing formats.
The audio stumbles, however. Originally released theatrically in mono, the Dolby Digital sound here varies in performance. When reproducing Dave Grusin’s sax-heavy, VERY 70s’ music score the audio projects with occasional peaking. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, but sometimes the ADR is simply at odds with the environment. At one point during a scene (Chapter 18), Christine Lahti sounds muffled at the beginning and you can actually hear the fidelity clear up incrementally as the scene goes on! I am not sure if the variable quality of the audio is due to poorly archived elements or the compression inherent in the Dolby Digital encoding process but I’ve experienced much older mono soundtracks with better fidelity. Language options include French and Spanish language soundtracks (mono as well) and subtitles in no less than six different languages (seven if you count English).
The main supplemental feature on the disc is a feature-length commentary by director Norman Jewison. I always find the commentaries from older films more interesting than the recollections on newly-minted features, simply because the filmmakers have had more time to ponder their mistakes or share the joy or anguish of rediscovering their exploits. Jewison tackles virtually every scene, discussing the actors’ motivation or elaborating on logistical problems and offering some historical context between shooting the film two decades ago and looking at it now. His comments about the scenes between Pacino and the legendary Lee Strasberg are particularly touching, since he was a kind of surrogate father to Pacino and Jewison points out the poignancy of Pacino’s performance in those moments. The commentary shines when Jewison talks about how he based Rayford’s love of guns on our inability to lose our American frontier past of keeping the law with justice and keeping the peace with a gun. Where my eyebrows arched incredulously was when Jewison every so often talks about how Pacino "underplays" a scene (Hmmm…) The commentary is available on both the widescreen and full-screen versions.
A trailer for "...And Justice..." as well as the 1995 feature "Donnie Brasco" provide an interesting counterpoint between the younger, explosive star Pacino with the more mature, but equally volatile elder character actor Pacino. The trailers are letterboxed, again very clean and very sharp. Talent films and liner notes round out the supplements.
"...And Justice for All" recalls everything dynamic about moviemaking during the 70s: the newness of its stars, the provocative content and its critical eye towards American middle-class life. Perhaps not in the class of the "Godfathers" or "Dog Day Afternoon," time has been charitable in re-evaluating Pacino’s performance and Jewison’s cry for justice and mercy. If you can get past the bell bottoms and wild hair, "…And Justice for All" is well worth revisiting on DVD.