Oftentimes, the most difficult features to approach are those whose brilliant scenes add up to less than they would if taken individually. Norman Jewison's satire ...And Justice for All hits this mark, to such an extreme that it almost evades value judgment. (It appears to have thoroughly baffled critics when it hit American cinemas in September of 1979 -- and several who were brave enough to approach it dismissed the entire enterprise as mediocre.) Such is an oversimplification at best. As a whole, Justice feels schizoid and erratic, veering violently and unpredictably from searing, bitter, white-hot, and heartbreaking social criticism (sans any visible traces of humor) to some of the most daft, pickled, and uproarious American black comedy of the past several decades. The film's primary weakness originates with Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin's script, which never finds a tonal foothold -- it feels modally uncertain, shaky, and tenuous throughout. (That it received an Oscar nomination is inexplicable.) And yet, by some small miracle, Justice's strengths far outshine the flaws that exist on the script level. The Jewison-directed performances by Al Pacino, then-newcomer Christine Lahti, Jack Warden, a young Jeffrey Tambor, Craig T. Nelson, and especially John Forsythe (who surprised just about everybody with a brilliant vile turn away from his good-guy typecasting) score a bullseye. (Lahti and Pacino play off of each other with astonishing deftness -- their romantic/sexual patter is one of the film's great highlights). The preponderance of the film's satirical commentary on the American judicial system feels spot-on, as eerily predictive as Network was, three years prior, in its excoriation of television news. And one cannot help but admire Levinson and Curtin's ensemble of colorfully cracked characters -- from Pacino, the irascible counsel responsible for punching Forsythe's judge in the mouth, to Tambor's over-the-edge fellow attorney, who shaves his head and hurls discus with cafeteria plates in the courthouse hallways, to Warden's suicidally fetishistic judge, who brings Pacino's character within an inch of death in a helicopter ride. And though the details of the film's final scene will go unrevealed here, let it be said that it rewrote the rules of the cinematic "courtroom tirade" -- it remains one of those rare concluding sequences, like the courtroom scene in Martin Ritt's The Front, that have the viewer crying, laughing, and cheering simultaneously, in stunned admiration. ...And Justice for All may suffer a bit from the scriptwriters' gutsy attempt to blend tones, but it ultimately rises above its scattered weaknesses and stakes its claim as an essential (and overlooked) work of American cinema.
by Nathan Southern review