I was just washing dishes and it hit me: I know what is wrong with the film And Justice for All. Now understand, it isn’t a bad film. Not at all. But really, it ought to be a great film—or at least close. And it isn’t. It is about an important subject and it provides a surprisingly accurate representation of the legal system. It has interesting characters. And it is totally geared to Al Pacino’s strange form of acting. So what is the problem?
If you haven’t seen the film, the central conflict is between Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino), who just wants to see justice done, and Henry Fleming (John Forsythe), a heartless judge who hides behind technicalities to punish defendants without a care for the fact that they might be innocent. So far so standard: Fleming is totally typical of judges and Kirkland is a typical movie hero lawyer. About halfway through the film, Fleming is accused of brutally raping a young woman and Kirkland is blackmailed into representing him. Right before they are to go to trial, Kirkland learns some information that indicates that the judge may in fact be guilty.
So Kirkland confronts Fleming who emotionlessly admits that he did it. The core of the scene and the character is that Fleming simply thinks that there are those little people on whom he passes judgement. And then there is himself who of course is moral regardless of what he does. People don’t judge me; I judge people! And therein lies the problem with the movie: that one two minute scene.
Fleming’s character is not real. At that point, he becomes nothing more than a movie villain. But this isn’t a James Bond film. It’s all right for Kirkland to be a bit too pure. He’s the audience surrogate. But the film is supposed to be realistic and have something to say about our society. So Fleming has to be believable. And it would take so little. Unless we are to believe that Fleming is insane, he would know that one doesn’t brutally rape young women. He would have to find a way to justify what he had done in his own mind.
I’m sure there are many ways that one could do that. What I think is most obvious is that Fleming would say, sure, he got a little out of control. But one doesn’t let one little “mistake” ruin a great career. Right? He’s one of the good guys! And that would be particularly poignant, given that Fleming was directly responsible for the death of an innocent young man. And he did not care in the least.
As the film stands, we just have to assume that Fleming is a psychopath. And actually, I’m more than willing to believe that a lot of well respected judges are psychopaths. But that isn’t very interesting. What’s more, I don’t believe a psychopath would admit his guilt. There just isn’t an advantage to it. Regardless, it is a fun film with this memorable courtroom scene, that I still find affecting:
A much more interesting (but less commercially successful) film could have been made if the filmmakers had avoided genre. Then they could have left the audience to decide on Fleming’s guilt while pushing the balance of evidence against him. Of course, that would ruin the great courtroom scene. But then, it would be a totally different film. And there’s nothing wrong with genre.