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A Civil Action

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: A Civil Action

Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall
Director: Steven Zaillian
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: January 1999
Genres: Drama, Thriller


*Also starring: Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Peter Jacobson, Sydney Pollack, Zeljko Ivanek



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Americans trust lawyers as much as they rely on politicians and used-car salesmen. We don't like 'em. How do we know? Because a lawyer himself tells us so. In a movie which dramatizes an actual case, Attorney Jan Schlichtmann tells his radio talk show listeners that lawyers have been abhorred not only in the U.S. but in other areas of the world throughout history. (He might have pointed out Shakespeare's own view, which the Bard enunciated in Henry VI, Part IV, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"). It's a peculiar thing, though. If we dislike these professionals so much, why do we hire them so often, and why do we buy John Grisham's novels so regularly that anything he writes is guaranteed a number one position on the Best Seller lists? Most paradoxical of all, we cheer these fellows on mightily when they take on the giant corporations, as when a hero lawyer fights the entire tobacco industry and the insurance business in two of Grisham's books.

The answer is that we are selective in our affections. We like low-key, small-town Davids who take on big-city Goliaths. We dislike big-city counselors who bill $400 an hour to protect companies that commit atrocities. We also dislike small-town advocates who chase ambulances, who, we assume, have no feeling for their clients' suffering but who are interested only in winning huge sums that they share 40- 60 with their hapless clients.

All of this information is to explain the appeal of a book which has now become a high-profile movie, "A Civil Action." Written by a non-lawyer, Jonathan Harr, and published by Random House in December 1995, it swiftly became a best- seller and then a paperback, remaining on the most-read lists for quite a long time. Its appeal lay in its David-Goliath resonance, with the redemption of a personal injury lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann who hocked and lost everything--his home, his credit cards, his reputation, but not his integrity--in fighting two giant companies guilty of polluting Woburn, Massachusetts waters for well over a decade. As a result of the corporate evils, eight children had died of leukemia, while the two companies, Grace and Beatrice Foods, denied that they were in any way responsible. The case became an orphan for a while, i.e. no law firm was willing to go to the expense of handling it, because the odds of winning seemed remote. Even Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) had informed the mother of the dead child (Kathleen Quinlan) that he could not afford to take on the litigation. His mind was changed when he took a closer look at the chemically polluted waters that would find their way into the homes of the people of the small Massachusetts town.

What the movie version has in its favor is that Schlichtmann is not portrayed as a one-dimensional hero, an Atticus Finch fighting for all that is just and good. He is a flawed person, the sort that would be appreciated by the ancient Greek playwrights, a guy who is motivated less by the tragic circumstances of his clients than by a titanic ego and the quest for the ultimate contingency fee. He had been for years considered one of Boston's ten most eligible bachelors, an extravagant and superficial man who passed out his business card in a flash whenever he went by the scene of an accident. But when he saw the dirty waters and imagined the overwhelming sorrow that these families felt at the loss of the young ones, something snapped. He hires a team of geologists and engineers and pays their fee in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect evidence of the deadly nature of the soil around the waters. Specifically he is determined to prove that the chemicals used by a tannery had spilled over onto the soil and were not properly cleaned up. They were dumped carelessly into the ground and found their way into the drinking water of the residents.

Director Steven Zaillian, who adopted Mr. Harr's book to the screen, has fun taking down the big shots a notch or two. He is particularly scornful of the vice president of Grace and Company, who had invited Schlichtmann to New York to discuss a settlement and who humiliated the lawyer by patronizing the latter's education at Cornell University (he had himself gone to Harvard) and by instructing him that business is never transacted at the Harvard Club. Zaillian shows less contempt for the ordinary working-class people who refuse to testify that they had witnessed the company's dumping of toxic waste into the area around the water since, after all, their jobs depended on their remaining silent.

Unfortunately Zaillian does not exploit the major advantage of movies. Film is a visual medium, unlike books, and by conducting most of the action in the courtroom, in hearing chambers, and law offices, he is essentially giving us a filmed play. "A Civil Action" would do as well on the stage as the page, where dialogue is the most essential element, but is lost on the big screen which demands action and greater punch. Further, Zaillian does not take advantage of the skills of his actors with the one exception of Robert Duvall, who performs in the role of one of the two corporate lawyers, Jerome Facher. Facher is an eccentric chap, one who has earned his idiosyncrasies by being one of the city's top attorneys. He insists on a totally work-free lunch hour, where he listens to Boston Red Sox games on his little portable radio and scowls at the messenger lad who brings him envelopes during his quiet time. When he discusses cases by phone with big clients, he is not averse to throwing a ball against the wall and catching it, and when he sees a pen that he admires, he asks whether he can take it with him. Duvall's winning performance is not matched by Travolta, who dramatizes his part in a solid by stolid manner, and what's more his partners--played by William H. Macy and Tony Shalhoub--are caricatures. Kathleen Quinlan is insufferable as a woman who has lost her child, who wants only an apology from the corporations and not the money, and who turns her back on the now bankrupt Schlichtmann because he has not succeeded in getting that repentance.

Because "A Civil Action" is based on a real case, it does not have the feel-good ending that you might expect from a more melodramatic movie or from a comedy like "The Waterboy" (in which the good-guys' football team wins the game in the final second). That is all to the good. But the movie simply does not have the spark to kindle much excitement, given the capacities of the film medium. To see how a similar situation is handled in a more stirring manner, take in last year's "The Sweet Hereafter," which abounds in tingling imagery and features a monumental performance by Ian Holm as the troubled lawyer.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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