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A Civil Action

Released: 1998

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 1 hr 58 min

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Steven Zaillian

Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Norris, John Lithgow, James Gandolfini, Stephen Fry

A film based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Harr. Both the book and the film are based on a true story that took place in Woburn, Massachusetts in the 1980s.

The battle, in which there were few winners, is all too neatly wrapped up in a Hollywood style ending.

Review by: SteveRhodes

Added: 8 years ago

In A CIVIL ACTION, Jan Schlichtmann, a personal injury lawyer, more aptly known as an ambulance chaser, has been named one of Boston's 10 most eligible bachelors. With his movie star good looks and his expensive clothing, he blasts down the small road in his sleek, black Porsche on the way to turn down some would-be clients. Their case, involving a cluster of leukemia deaths among 8 children, appears to be a financial loser. (He has already lectured the audience in voice-over about the "calculus" of human worth. Children, having no current incoming producing ability, fall at the bottom of the charts.)

Jan wants to waste as little of his valuable time as possible on this case. After getting his second speeding ticket of the day, he notices a stream near where his car had been pulled over by the officer. Following it, he gets his fancy shoes muddy, but he discovers the mother lode. There are two big companies (Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace) who have facilities near the stream. As visions of checks with large numbers of zeros flash through his head, a smug smile comes across his face, and he decides then and there to take the case. Without any testing to see if the companies' proximity to the water has any relationship whatsoever to the children's illness, he knows only that the companies have the deep pockets from which he figures he can extract large sums of money for himself and his clients.

(Writer and director Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Jonathan Harr's book can be infuriating if you think too hard about some of the scientific conclusions being drawn. As recent articles in the "Wall Street Journal" and "Forbes" have pointed out, the case is far from the simplistic one described. Clusters will occur in any set of random numbers, and whether these two companies had anything to do with it was never proven. The articles point out that the chemical (TCE) mentioned in the movie is not a human carcinogen, and the town in question has had ground water contamination for 350 years. At any rate, the entertaining movie has significant problems even if you accept the book and screenplay as the full and complete truth.)

The problems start with John Travolta's flat performance as Jan. Travolta never warms up to the role, coming across as emotionally uninvolved. Whereas he threw himself into his recent part in PRIMARY COLORS, playing another character with a flexible set of morals, this time he approaches the role with clinical detachment. Generating neither sympathy nor scorn, he gives a passionless performance than leaves the movie with a hollow core.

Writer and director Zaillian, who was so masterfully in control in SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, sets a languid pace in A CIVIL ACTION. Fascinating incidents frequently dissolve into tedium as the energy gets drained away.

Notwithstanding all of these troubles, the supporting cast is terrific, and, as a writer, Zaillian comes up with some great, subtle humor that provides one laugh after another as the lawyers put down each other and themselves. (The script is much less successful in conjuring up the pain and suffering of the children. Absent a few scenes, their misery is discussed with all of the compassion of a medical textbook.)

The movie is worth seeing for Robert Duvall's performance alone, which deserves to be remembered at Oscar time. As Jerome Facher, the cagey old lawyer for Beatrice, Duvall is mesmerizing as he runs circles around the younger and more aggressive lawyers. Acting like a man who always has 5 aces up his sleeve, Jerome disarms his prey by talking about everything but the law. In a particularly delicious scene, he sits listening to Jan hanging himself through the sin of pride. After asking if he could have the nifty hotel pen, Jerome smiles at his adversary and leaves, ignoring entirely Jan's pompous attempt at negotiations. The character of Jerome is so rich that a television series could easily be built around it. When Jerome is on the screen, all of the movie's failings are quickly forgotten.

The other amazing piece of work comes from William H. Macy as James Gordon, the accountant for Jan's small law firm, who tries valiantly but unsuccessfully to reign in the firm's soaring expenses for the case. As Jan bankrupts himself and his partners, James slowly and surely begins to lose it emotionally. Macy's sympathetic portrayal of James will have you laughing so hard that you almost cry as James tries everything from lottery tickets to a plethora of credit cards to come up with the cash necessary to keep the case afloat.

The battle, in which there were few winners, is all too neatly wrapped up in a Hollywood style ending. The legal conclusions are printed in stark white letters just before the ending credits. Don't read them too carefully, however, or you will realize how little was really decided.

A CIVIL ACTION runs 1:58. It is rated PG-13 for mature themes and several uses of the F-word and would be fine for kids around 12 and up.