“You’re out of order!”: …and Justice for All (1979)
"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"
Lately, I've been asking myself a variation of that line from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity: Do I relate to Arthur Kirkland in ...and Justice for All (1979) because I'm an idealist? Or am I an idealist because I relate to Arthur Kirkland in ...and Justice for All?
The lines between pop culture and our lives often blur, so I'm thinking the best answer to both of those questions is simply, "Yes."
The problem with being an idealist is that life will consistently fail to meet your standards for it. We want everyone to be treated fairly, for people to look out for one another with compassion and empathy. If that sounds like a fantasy world to you, then you're partially right - it's an idealist's dream.
Al Pacino was one of the first actors whose performances resonated deeply with me, to the point that I not only loved and appreciated his work, but actively wished to become more like him and the characters he portrays. I so strongly identify with many of his best performances - Frank Serpico in Serpico (1973) Sonny Wurtzik in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Frank Keller in Sea of Love (1989), and Johnny in Frankie and Johnny (1991), to name just a few - because in many ways they remind me of myself, validating that my way of being does indeed have merit. It's a powerful thing to see yourself reflected in characters who are also struggling to make some sort of sense of the world's insanity. It makes you feel less alone, even if only for that brief two hours you're watching a film.
Arthur Kirkland in Norman Jewison's ...and Justice for All is one such Pacino role that strikes a chord with me. In some ways, Arthur is Frank Serpico, had the latter gone to law school. Similar to Serpico's frustration with law enforcement, Arthur is growing more disillusioned by the minute with bureaucracy and corruption in the Baltimore courts system. He winds up with the unenviable task of defending a sitting judge accused of murder. Things go from bad to worse when Arthur learns his client is indeed guilty.
Jewison and screenwriters Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson do a marvelous job showing us the toll working within this crumbling system takes on participants. In one memorably bonkers scene, a fellow attorney (Jeffrey Tambor), completely cracks under the pressure and starts flinging ceramic plates down a hallway in the courthouse, while lawyers and security guards duck for cover. Arthur and Judge Rayford (Jack Warden) mount an offensive to stop him, dodging flying death-saucers, each of which hit the walls and smash into pieces just above Arthur's and Rayford's heads.
The film's seriousness is balanced by a wicked absurdist streak. Warden is particularly memorable as Rayford, a man also worn down by the system. But instead of cracking up or breaking down like Arthur, he's just casually trying to kill himself. Or, more accurately, putting himself in harm's way as often as possible, then letting fate take care of the rest.
Pacino is the glue that holds it altogether, in a nuanced performance that isn't mentioned often enough when lists of his best work are compiled. It's a classic Pacino part - the sensitive, thoughtful character trying to find some semblance of order amidst the chaos of system's designed to crush lone voices like his. Of course, Pacino's bigger, broader characterizations (Think: Devil's Advocate, parts of Heat, and Scent of a Woman) tend to get more play among casual movie fans, but it's with roles like Arthur where he's often been at his very best. This is prime Pacino - young and full of electricity, still growing into himself as an actor, still taking big risks and throwing every ounce of his soul into the part.
The most famous scene from ...and Justice for All is, of course, the final courtroom blowout. Arthur finally topples head-first over the edge, shouting, "That son of a bitch is guilty!" Then comes the lines everyone knows - "You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order!" In a lesser actor's hands, the scene could be a complete disaster, a showcase for scenery chewing only. In Pacino's hands, though, it's a startlingly powerful tour-de-force, a real highlight of his acting career. It would have been easy for him to take it completely over the top - something he would often do with greater regularity later in his career - but instead, he keeps Arthur's indignation all-too real. This moment is what he's been building towards the entire film. When he finally explodes in the courtroom, it's almost a relief.
Arthur's meltdown is a thing of beauty. Who hasn't wanted to just let loose and burn it all down, whether at work or at a family holiday gathering or at the DMV? I've had many a moment where I've teetered on the brink of reenacting Arthur's courtroom eruption. ...and Justice for All will always remain relevant, simply because there will always be systems to rage against. There's a little Arthur in everyone who's ever felt betrayed by how those systems fail us.