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A Civil Action

Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall
Director: Steven Zaillian
Genre: Drama
Year: 1998
Rating: 3 / 5

Reviewed by Guest Scribe Legend

Oscar buzz was surrounding A Civil Action long before it ever hit theatres, due in large part to a rather compelling true story and advance hype for the performances of stars John Travolta and Robert Duvall. Based on actual events that took place in the early 1980s in Woburn, Massachusetts, A Civil Action is the story of one man's quest to bring justice to eight small-town families, no matter what the cost to himself or those close to him. That being said, I nonetheless came away from this theatre experience rather disappointed in the events that transpired.

Were it not for that fact that this movie is indeed based on a true story, I would be hard-pressed to fathom the extent to which lead attorney Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta) went to to prosecute Beatrice Foods and R.W. Grace for water contamination. Schlichtmann is something of a local celebrity when the movie opens, having recently been named one of Boston's most eligible bachelors. Confident and cocky, Schlichtmann is the best at his trade - personal injury law. One of three attorneys at a small New England firm, Schlichtmann tells any client who comes his way that he cannot afford to lose. Being that the firm is so small, every case has to be a sure thing, so when Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) brings a case of potential water contamination to Schlichtmann's partner Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub, in an excellent, unheralded role), Schlichtmann is quick to turn it down. After all, the grieving families want justice, and they want apologies, yet they do not even know who to blame. After a chance speeding ticket along a secluded New England road, Schlichtmann does a little bit of investigating. At this point, he learns that the small, local corporations that might be at fault for the contamination are actually subsidiaries of two large conglomerates with rather deep pockets. Suddenly, his interest is piqued, and thus the ball gets rolling.

All of this happens within the first half hour to forty-five minutes of the movie, a timespan which also sees the introduction of Jerome Facher (Duvall, in a performance that is truly Oscar-worthy), Schlichtmann's primary nemesis and the chief counsel for Beatrice Foods. Facher is a no-nonsense type of lawyer who teaches the intricacies of law to college students when he is not in the courtroom. Quirky and enigmatic, Facher shoots straight from the hip, even if Schlichtmann is too absorbed in his case to notice. Facher seems to know the outcome of the case before it will even begin, and while he may represent corporate greed, Duvall presents him as a rather likeable fellow that one cannot help rooting for.

Perhaps I'm being a little too harsh on this because I had to read it for Civil Procedure (ed: Law School Class) last year and everything, but I was really, really disappointed. The most captivating part of the book was reading how leukemia ate away at the lives of these families, which really involves the reader. The movie had virtually none of this, and I think that was a serious weakness in the screenplay. By trying to focus on the 'legal drama' aspects, I think they disenfranchised the audience by not really caring for the cause as much as they should have. And I think that Travolta was a bit miscast (I guess they were going for the greedy lawyer image), considering Schlictmann was rail-thin. And the genius of casting Tony Salhoub (Wings) in the role of the Irishman, Kevin Conway, also was dubious to say the least. I'm also not sure it makes a good movie, as the story itself is anticlimactic. At least the screenplay was true to the story in that regard. Overall, it was something that could have been awesome, but was handled badly.

The primary setback this movie suffers is that all of the drama, and most of the tension, occur in this first portion of the movie. From the outset, it is quite apparent that a grave injustice has been done, so it is merely a question of whether or not Schlichtmann will be able to prove it. The firm sinks into financial woes early on in the film, and anything beyond that seems to be a belaboring of the point. As one reviewer put it, any "action" which takes place in this drama is delivered through the sneak previews and falls at the onset of the film. One is left with a huge build-up that hints at a large corporate cover-up, with young children the sad victims. Unfortunately, the payoff that the audience is expecting is never delivered. From a purely objective viewpoint, this movie is as advertised, with gifted performances by Duvall, Shalhoub, and William H. Macy (as Schlichtmann's financial advisor). Yet in terms of its appeal as an entertaining film, A Civil Action just does not pass the bar.

John Travolta..........Jan Schlichtmann
Robert Duvall..........Jerome Facher
William H. Macy..........James Gordon
Tony Shalhoub..........Kevin Conway
Zeljko Ivanek..........Bill Crowley
Kathleen Quinlan..........Anne Anderson
John Lithgow..........Judge Skinner

Certification: Rated PG-13 for language.
Running Time: 112 minutes.

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