Perhaps you've already seen a movie or two about an idealistic young lawyer fighting the heartless establishment, and at least one or two dozen, if not hundred, cops and robbers pictures. This doesn't mean you have seen them all. There are two new films out that use each of these familiar themes in entirely different, thought-provoking ways.
". . .And Justice of All" is a comic drama about a Baltimore lawyer whose sense of justice is ruining his career. "The Onion Field" is a chase picture that mostly takes place after the chase, as the participants move ponderously, year after year, though the courts.
Both pictures grapple with the paradox that life's chaotic jumble of rights and wrongs cannot always be correctly matched with the rewards and punishments of our legal system. They show, with multiple illustrations, that what is blatantly bad may turn out to be legal, or at least unpunishable, and that the good may suffer at the hands of the law, or the not-so-good be punished more than they deserve. And yet neither film is a simplistic condemnation of American jurisprudence, and neither pretends to come up with a solution to these complicated contradictions.
Both of them have their dramatic faults. ". . .And Justice for All" is composed of too many episodes with obvious morals, all jammed together, soap-opera style. "The Onion Field" is also episodic, but in a ploding fashion without a connecting stylistic uniformity. In each, the evidence piles up too thickly, as if to conceal with emotional appeals the difficulty of making this case against the legal system.
Still, they are two highly engrossing films about crime and punishment. In addition, ". . .And Justice for All," directed by Norman Jewison, is funny, engaging and beautifully acted. Some of its small scenes -- one composes entirely of the laughter of a group of lawyers on hearing of a tyrannous judges's being arrested for rape; another in which Lee Strasberg and Sam Levene exchange mild grumbles during a dinner out from their nursing home -- are little jewels. mAnd it even has a grown-up (as opposed to adult, which means dirty) love story, involving two whole, independent people who have strong interests in life in addition to their relationship with each other. There is another such love affair in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," and they are a lot sexier than the routine movie-matings of characters who exist only the mate.
Al Pacino plays the lawyer whose well-intentioned tactics and high-minded principles are usually ethically indefensible. He has, in the interests of his sense of justice, more than once betrayed a client; Christine Lahti, as his girl friend who serves on a legal ethics committee, makes effective arguments against such behavior, while strongly sympathizing, as the audience must, with the nobility and purpose from which it springs.
Some of the questions raised are: If a lawyer has succeeded in acquitting a person he knows to be guilty, should he feel any moral responsibility for that person's subsequent criminal actions? If a lawyer knows from the previously acquired confidences of a former client that he is the likeliest suspect in a new crime, can the lawyer inform the police? Is a lawyer who even asks himself such questions competent to give a client the service to which we believe every accused person is entitled?
What makes the film different is that it supplies two, irreconcilable, answers to these questions, one the strong emotional plea for applying justice as people deserve, and the other the rational case for a workable judicial system that allows the accused every possible chance.
In "The Onion Field," there is a brief scene in which a lawyer actually quits his profession after concluding, during six years of working on a case in which the facts are obvious, that "Physical fact is meaningless -- only the legal process has meaning."
But the main point of that film, a true story dramatized by former policeman Joseph Wambaugh, poses an even more impossible question about justice: the unfairness of the way guilt is distributed.
In it, two vicious criminals who do not suffer from guilt -- "Guilt? That's just something the man says in court when your luck runs out" -- live out comparatively satisfactory lives in prison, protected from their death sentences by the pace and technicalities of the legal system, while a police officer who was their victim is nearly destroyed by guilt in wondering how he could have better protected his slain partner.
Since the law is not in charge of the distribution of guilt according to deserts, this is a philosophically less troubling theme, but the implication is that the legal system's cumbersomeness accelerates the torture of the sensitive while protecting and aiding cynical manipulators.
Such a point must be made in human, emotional terms, and the film needs more complicated interpretations of the characters. Time is a major factor in this drama. It is the time taken up by the legal system that is seen to act for the guilty and against the innocent. And yet John Savage's characterization of the policeman is essentially the same throughout, and James Woods' criminal, while quirkily interesting, does not show him evolving from a hostile outsider to a man who is truly able to use the legal system adeptly, because he is benefited, rather than troubled, by its removal from simple "justice."
. . . AND JUSTICE FOR ALL -- AMC Carrollton, Aspen Hill, Jenifer, Laurel Cinema, Marlow, Springfield Mall and Tyson's Twin. THE ONION FIELD -- AMC Skyline, Beacon Mall, K-B Cinema, New Carrollton, Roth's Tysons Corner and White Flint.