(1979, Rated R) Al Pacino (Arthur Kirkland); Jack Warden (Judge Rayford); John Forsythe (Judge Fleming); Lee Strasberg (Grandpa Sam); Jeffrey Tambor (Jay Porter); Christine Lahti (Gail Packer); Sam Levene (Arnie); Robert Christian (Ralph Agee); Thomas Waites (Jeff McCullaugh); Larry Bryggman (Warren Fresnell); Craig T. Nelson (Frank Bowers). Music: Dave Grusin. Screenplay: Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson. Director: Norman Jewison. 119 minutes.
Tags: Courtroom Drama, Social Satire
Notable: One of the finest courtroom “opening statement” scenes in movie history, with the oft-misquoted line, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial’s out of order!” (Pacino)
When corrupt Judge Fleming is charged with rape, idealistic lawyer Arthur Kirkland is quietly blackmailed into defending him. Kirkland has had problems with the judge in the past, including one incident when the judge wrongly sentenced his client, Jeff McCullaugh, because of a technicality. As Kirkland prepares this and two other cases, he faces a series of moral and legal dilemmas, including the possibility that the judge is guilty.
With the hearings regarding Judge Brett Kavanaugh going on, now is a great time to revisit this particularly relevant film.
From the standpoint of plot, this film is an exercise in how bad things can get nothing but worse. No one is left unscathed, from Arthur Kirkland’s having innocent clients being railroaded by a system that is designed more for bureaucracy than it is for justice, to one of his fellow attorneys discovering that the excellence of his defense allowed a dangerous and guilty man go free. Every step taken seems to bring yet more problems to his professional and personal life until, as the very last straw to break him, the rich, white, self-privileged, smarmy Judge Fleming forces Kirkland to defend him by threatening to have him (Kirkland) disbarred for betraying a client confidentiality some years before.
As Kirkland, Pacino portrays a sympathetic, caring, honest, sincere guy — not qualities associated with the profession of “lawyer.” Early in the film, he is called to the scene of an automobile accident at the request of one of his clients, who is quite madly trying to come up with any number of reasons why the driver of the other car should be arrested, sued, and quite likely shot into space. Kirkland calms him as he’s put into the ambulance, then walks equally calmly to the clearly-shaken driver of the other car, asks if he’s all right, suggests he too go to the hospital, let everyone else take care of the mess, just get himself seen to. He is not manipulative; he’s a mensch, wanting to make sure that everyone is all right first, and seeing to fairness and reparation after everything has calmed down. This, in my opinion, is what a good person — especially a lawyer — should strive to be.
In portraying Kirkland this way, Pacino not only gets us on his side right away, but he also creates one of the few — perhaps the only — truly three-dimensional character in the entire film. All the rest, including the judges, attorneys, victims, and even his grandfather, are all more caricatures, two-dimensional representatives of poor approximations of human beings. They are meant to be precisely that. They depict the all-too-familiar stereotypes who wander around a human-doings instead of human-beings.
This does not in any way diminish the various actors’ portrayals. Jack Warden is a judge who hates his job and actively pursues ways to kill himself, never quite making it; he was/is Kirkland’s mentor, and as such paints a deeply ironic picture. John Forsythe’s Judge Fleming is devoutly unlikeable from the start, and he manages to get only worse. Jeffrey Tambor, a fine and fascinating character actor in his own right, manages to generate astonishing sympathy as the lawyer whose excellence at his job helps a guilty man go free to hurt still others. Thomas Waites plays a falsely-accused, terrified young man who, as the result of driving a car with a broken tail-light, finds himself imprisoned (on charges relating to someone else entirely) and unable to be freed because the evidence that exonerates him has been found “three days late.”
To be more specific would lead to spoilers of all kinds. However, what is at the heart of this film is the realization that The System is not merely flawed but dangerous. At no point does anyone suggest anarchy, but it does suggest — vividly — that “the letter of the law” is not something to be proud of. For most people, The Law is a mysterious and terrifying entity that (we fervently pray) we never have to deal with. What would change this feeling, and in fact what the film advocates and reinforces in nearly every scene, is that the law, lawyers, and judges should seek less to use the law as a tool and seek more to find justice using the law as merely a guideline. When lawyers and judges seek to use the law as the means of protecting and enriching themselves rather than to find justice, then The System has failed utterly, and that’s when (to use the metaphor espoused by the Trumpian Travesty) the swamp must be drained.
Watch this film immediately, review it often. This is what needs to be remembered when dangerous, privileged people like Brett Kavanaugh are about to be elevated to a lifelong position of power over the entire country.