Civil Action, A (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Let me begin this review by stating that I am weary of courtroom dramas. This is in large part because of John Grisham, whose popularity has encouraged screenwriters exploring this genre to fall into familiar, predictable patterns. Seen in retrospect, some of the best of these movies (The Verdict, A Few Good Men, Presumed Innocent) no longer look as impressive as they once did. So it was with low expectations that I sat down to watch A Civil Action, the second feature directed by Steven Zaillian (his first was Searching for Bobby Fischer), the screenwriter of Schindler's List. However, Zaillian managed to surprise me by crafting a courtroom drama which is sufficiently different and thought-provoking that I can recommend it with a clear conscience.

A Civil Action does not enter groundbreaking territory, but it tones down the inherent melodrama of courtroom scenes to tolerable levels and does not offer any shock testimony or dramatic legal maneuvers. Indeed, the film isn't as much about a court case as it is about the legal system in general and how a sudden empathy with human suffering changes the personality of an ambulance chaser. The problem with the movie is that the transition of Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) from money-grubbing bottom feeder to champion of human rights happens too suddenly and without proper motivation. One moment, he's telling a group of citizens that he'll only take the case if there's a big payout; shortly thereafter, he's refusing a $25 million settlement because he wants to send a message.

The movie, which is based on Jonathan Harr's book (which, in turn, recounts a true case) opens by showing what a slick operator Jan is in court. In a voiceover, he teaches us some of the basic rules of personal injury law: "A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as a living, married person" and "A dead child is worth the least of them all." Jan is the shining star at the small Boston law office comprised of him, Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub), and Bill Crowley (Zeljko Ivanek). They work in close concert with their accountant and financial wizard, James Gordon (William H. Macy). When Jan is offered a case in which eight children in the small town of Woburn, Massachusetts have died of leukemia, he decides to turn it down, even though he can "appreciate the theatrical value of several dead kids." The theory is that spilled chemicals from a local factory and tanning plant tainted the water and caused the cancer. Then a cursory investigation reveals that a pair of extremely wealthy corporations, W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods, may be involved. Their deep pockets and the potential for a huge pay day cause Jan to change his mind. Soon, he is squaring off in court against William Cheeseman (Bruce Norris), the inept lawyer representing Grace, and Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), the wily and dangerous attorney for Beatrice.

Playing Facher with the same zeal he used for the title character in The Apostle, Robert Duvall appears to be enjoying himself immensely, and he provides the audience with plenty of entertaining moments. He does an excellent job of melding the sinister veteran and the apparently-absentminded clown into one eccentric individual. (The real Facher has been quoted as saying that Duvall played him better than he could play himself.) William H. Macy, who has developed into one of the best character actors in the business, adds one more worthwhile credit to his growing resume. Other solid performances are given by Tony Shalhoub as the least jaded of the trio of lawyers, Kathleen Quinlan as the mother who first approaches Jan about the Woburn suit, Stephen Fry as a geologist, and John Lithgow as the judge presiding over the case. Unfortunately, one of the least convincing performances is given by Travolta. As the pre-redemption lawyer, he's solid. We can easily believe he's a barracuda in a three-piece suit. But as a crusader, Travolta fails to make us believe in his cause. There's never anything believably warm or human in this portrayal; it's rigid throughout.

Unlike many courtroom dramas, which are grim and filled with dark tragedies and triumphant revelations, A Civil Action doesn't take itself too seriously, nor does it rely on the crutch of inane action sequences. There's plenty of comedy in the script. In fact, one could argue that both Facher and Gordon are included as much for comic relief as for more serious purposes. The other interesting element is that Zaillian offers some atypical insights into the workings of the legal system. We learn that, when it comes to personal injury suits, the goal is to reach an out-of-court settlement (only 1.5% of such cases reach a verdict, and the result is 2:1 against the plaintiff), because, in a court of law, the litigants are "lucky to find anything... that resembles the truth." A Civil Action does not function as an attack against lawyers, but as a hard, bitterly humorous look at the realities of the legal system. It's not nearly as good as 1997's The Sweet Hereafter, which trailblazed its way through similar territory with extraordinary and heartbreaking aptitude (Ian Holm's portrayal of a personal injury lawyer in that film leaves John Travolta in the dust). Nevertheless, combining a few good performances with an engaging and intelligent script, A Civil Action marks a rare worthwhile entry into a genre that has worn out its welcome.

Civil Action, A (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1