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On October 19, 1979, Columbia unveiled the R-rated legal drama …And Justice for All in theaters. The film went on to earn two Oscar nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards, for its screenplay and for Al Pacino in the lead actor category. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
…And Justice for All is one ironic title and one terrific movie. With Al Pacino starring and Norman Jewison directing, the Joe Wizan presentation for Columbia release socks across an often scathing, surprisingly funny and constantly terrifying scan of today’s judicial system: it’s a cinch to not only raise some hackles and stir controversy, but simultaneously entertain audiences and make them think — and that adds up to big box office.
For Pacino, it’s a return (after 1977’s Bobby Deerfield) to the kind of role he plays best: the scruffy rebel, strong but vulnerable, low-key but easily ignited, fighting in a slick society for simple rights and a fair shake. This time he’s a lawyer, a 12-year vet in the courts, battling not only one-on-one injustices but, apparently, a whole system gone bonkers. “Being honest doesn’t have much to do with being a lawyer,” he dejectedly advises at one point. But, as played by Pacino, you know he may believe it but won’t accept it. That’s what makes …And Justice for All hold interest and crackle.
The story line by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson opens with Pacino in jail, serving time for taking a swing at an important judge (John Forsythe) he despises for the latter’s inequities, then follows him through several cases: defending a transvestite (Robert Christian) who’s terrified of going to the pokey; attempting to spring an innocent kid (Thomas Waites) from an unfair incarceration; coping with a partner (Jeffrey Tambor) who freaks out; helping a rich client (Dominic Chianese) who’s always in hot water; and finally being blackmailed into defending his arch-enemy Forsythe, who’s charged with rape — and is guilty. Pacino’s only compensations seem to be visits with his grandfather (Lee Strasberg), communication with a rascally judge (Jack Warden) and bedding down with Christine Lahti. But grandpa’s senile, the judge is bent on suicide and his bedmate is at opposite poles on the subject of law.
How it all turns out is not as important as the questions being raised along the route, especially the one of keenest interest (and impact) to us all: Are any of us safe today, with the way the law — and lawyers — work? Apparently not, according to ...And Justice for All, unless you can find a Pacino clone in your corner. Or until the Bar Assn. films a rebuttal.
The film is loaded with virtues — strong direction, bright performances, stinging script, ace camera work (by Victor Kemper), jaunty music score (by Dave Grusin) — but it is not without its flaws. Some of the story line stretches credibility, especially the character played by Forsythe, who is almost too villainous under the circumstances; it’s also tough to believe he would place his own defense in the hands of a man like Pacino who’s been indelibly painted as a lawyer-rebel who’s unorthodox, uncontrollable and an island. Reasons for the Pacino-Forsythe affiliation should have been much stronger.
Character line assigned to Lahti (the only femme with any real footage) also dilutes without explanation, robbing the film of a chance to say some important things about those who feel the law is a rigid and unbendable thing. It starts to, but dissolves before making any points or conclusions. Warden’s kooky judge makes for some good laughs but he seems almost too dingbat for believability, especially since the other characters are basically written in flesh-and-blood strokes. Warden plays it well; the problem is the script, which has his many suicide attempts verge too much on a Roadrunner level.
Strasberg, as Pacino’s aging grandfather, gives a beautiful interpretation of the hazards of time, and Sam Levene has good moments as his equally old ally. Forsythe, despite the severity of his role, is impressive in a triumph against typecasting. Performances by Pacino’s clients (Christian, Waites, Chianese) are absolutely first-rate, as is the work by Tambor (in his screen bow), Larry Bryggman as a fellow lawyer and Craig T. Nelson as an ice-cold prosecuting attorney.
The picture opens, under credits, with the voices of three kids individually saying the Pledge of Allegiance ending, naturally, with “…and justice for all.” That makes what follows all the more chilling. Rating of R is for language, most of the stronger words delivered within the confines of a court session. Mark this as a hit. Assisted by Pacino’s persona and draw, it has all the makings of an enormously popular movie. — Robert Osborne, originally published on Sept. 17, 1979
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