1979's And Justice for All stars Al Pacino as an honest lawyer. In a profession where oath and ambition insulates judges, prosecutors and attorneys from doing what's right, I hope after just reviewing Star Trek: The Motion Picture that you're OK with reading about another science fiction film.
Hey, we're talking Al Pacino. His Oscar nominated performance relegates this legal dissertation into a fiction that makes us want to believe - even if it could never really happen. But that’s why we go to the movies.
It follows that the film begins with “Arthur” in city lockup, having taken a swing at Judge Henry Fleming, played by John Forsythe. Pivoting on a young man trapped in legal limbo and actual prison as a result of mistaken identity, Judge Fleming holds the key to the boy’s release. That said, almost all that matters to Fleming is that Arthur was three days late in filing the exonerating evidence.
Almost, because the judge has his own ideas about the punishment fitting the crime and innocent until proven guilty. “Maybe punishment should be worse than the crime and the innocent need to go to jail sometimes," the law and order justice lectures Pacino.
But the megalomania that follows isn’t solely confined to Fleming. Prosecutors pursuing political gain at the expense of the truth, lawyers concerned only with their bottom lines, a commission spinning its wheels to look like its doing something about a broken system and judges so disconnected from the humanity that they are supposed to uphold that they lump everyone together.
In other words, the American Justice System, and with the duplicity indigenous to the law, something we overlook – the mental illness that likely pervades it.
Jack Warden plays a suicidal judge who flirts with death by sitting on the ledge of the NYC courthouse and regularly flies his helicopter past the half-way point of his fuel reserves. Crashing short of the helipad into the shallows of the Hudson, Warden rationalizes the near miss for Arthur. Doesn’t it make you feel alive?
But Jay, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is the friend that goes over the edge. Mounting a brilliant defense for a violent criminal, Jay loses it when the felon goes out and murders two children. Exhibiting a series of bizarre behaviors, Jay is hauled away.
Still, it’s Judge Fleming that really carries the mental illness load. Fleming's hatred of “these animals” is a projection of his own depraved tendencies. Raping and beating a young woman, his psychosis doesn’t put limits on his duplicity. Given Arthur’s reputation for honesty and dislike of Fleming, the judge reasons that Arthur makes the perfect defense attorney.
Arthur would only defend him if he was innocent and Pacino accepts because the judge holds the cards to the wrongly imprisoned youth. But when the young man is murdered in prison, the judge loses his leverage. Pacino then finds evidence of the judge’s guilt, and Arthur is seemingly off the hook. That’s until Fleming draws upon his immense connections to have Arthur disbarred.
Forced into the courtroom, Pacino complies – even in the face of Fleming's arrogance. “You know I wouldn’t mind seeing her again,” he tells Pacino in court.