movie review by
Gary Johnson

A Civil Action


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Americans have decidedly mixed feelings about lawyers. On one hand, we deplore what we perceive as a morality wed to the almighty dollar, but at the same time, regardless of how much we complain and feign disgust, we understand many of the profit-motivated decisions that lawyers must make. In the first few scenes of A Civil Action, director/screenwriter Steven Zaillian mines this schism of attitudes with remarkable skill and insight. John Travolta, as attorney Jan Schlichtmann, narrates these scenes while explaining the "calculus" of personal injury law, where a white male, 40-years-old, "at the height of his earning potential," is the most prized client--and where a dead child is the least prized. The bluntness of this message, and how easily we understand its economics, is genuinely unsettling.

Schlictmann becomes everything that we hate in attorneys, especially as sarcasm drips from his lips while he says this about his clients: "I wish I could find some way not to empathize. It'd be a lot easier." However, with the charismatic Travolta delivering the words as he wheels his paralyzed client into the courtroom, we don't immediately hate the attorney. We see the opportunism that motivates him, but at the same time we have a glimmer of respect for a man who commands his occupation like a master artist wields a paint brush. In addition, because the narration comes from an unspecified time after the events were recorded, we can't completely discard the possibility that Travolta's narration is indeed sincere--that he really does empathize with his clients (possibly as a result of the case that the movie subsequently details). As the movie unfolds, this uncertainty about Schlictmann begins to play out, and while initially he seems to be little more than a debonair land shark, we soon see traces of humanity.

When a group of parents in a rural community suspects that chemical-laced tap water has caused the deaths of several children, they attempt to enlist Schlictmann. The parents aren't interested in receiving monetary compensation; they want a company to fess up and say "we're responsible." However, when Schlictmann meets the parents, he insists that he can't help them without someone to sue--someone with "very deep pockets." Something happens to him during this encounter, though, something difficult to define, and soon he begins digging for more information about the companies that might have poisoned the water.

"From a financial standpoint, this is not a sound investment," warns James Gordon (William H. Macy in an excellent supporting performance), Schlictmann's partner. However, Schlictmann continues to dig until he finds a company with deep pockets that has been polluting the river. At this point, whether or not this company is in fact guilty of poisoning the drinking water is irrelevant. All Schlictmann sees is a multi-million dollar company to sue. But as he sticks with the case and the resources of his law office begin to dwindle, Schlictmann becomes attached to the case and he won't let go--even if his firm is destroyed in the process.

Robert Duvall plays the opposing council, a beguilingly eccentric lawyer whose countrified manners baffle everyone he meets. This performance isn't in the same category as his performances in Tender Mercies and The Apostle. Duvall is in a broader, less subtle mode here. But it's also one of the funniest performances of his career.

In contrast to Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, which explored the pain in a small rural town after an accident killed several school children, A Civil Action isn't concerned with pain. Kathleen Quinlan is suitably disturbed as one of the mourning parents. But for the most part, A Civil Action eschews the drama that revolves around the parents in favor of legal drama. This is a movie about lawyers and Schlictmann's obsession with this one legal case.

Unlike John Grisham's legal dramas (The Client, The Firm, etc.), A Civil Action doesn't unfold like a thriller. Many of the ingredients of a Hollywood thriller are present, but the filmmakers thwart many of our expectations about trial drama movies. A Civil Action doesn't provide any big climactic court revelations. None of the main characters go down in flames. There is no clear cut enemy. The credits at the end tell us how punishment was finally dealt out to the guilty. Because of this refusal to take the predictable, audience-pleasing routes established by a legion of trial drama movies, the movie is much more realistic and the characters are more believable.

However, for all of its virtues--not the least of which is John Travolta's outstanding performance--A Civil Action isn't a particularly satisfying movie. Because the filmmakers' refuse to allow this movie to become a typical Hollywood thriller, the burden falls upon the characters to sustain the movie. However, the filmmakers only allow us to see Schlictmann when he is busy plying his trade. We get precious few hints of who he is away from his profession. We never become privy to the motivations that create his obsession with the case. As a result, Schlictmann becomes an enigma--a fascinating enigma, but a frustrating one. Based on a book by Jonathan Harr, who based his work on a real life case, A Civil Action is all about providing us with an inside glimpse into the world of personal injury law; however, the drama turns on the effect that this one case has upon Schlictmann. Unfortunately, the film stops midway between a legal thriller and a character study, and thus doesn't completely satisfy as either.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]