(director/writer: Steven Zaillian; screenwriter: based on the book by Jonathan Harr; cinematographer: Conrad L. Hall; editor: Wayne Wahrman; cast: John Travolta (Jan Schlichtmann), Robert Duvall (Jerome Facher), Tony Shalhoub (Kevin Conway), William H. Macy (James Gordon), Zeljko Ivanek (Bill Crowley), Bruce Norris (William Cheeseman), Kathleen Quinlan (Anne Anderson), Peter Jacobson (Neil Jacobs), Mary Mara (Kathy Boyer), James Gandolfini (Al Love), Stephen Fry (Pinder ), Dan Hedaya (John Riley), Sydney Pollack (Al Eustis), John Lithgow (Judge Walter J. Skinner); Runtime: 115; Touchstone Pictures; 1998)


“What the film failed to do, is to bring a sense of urgency.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“A Civil Action” is about a real court case in the early 1980s involving toxic waste dumping in a small town north of Boston, that is based on Jonathan Harr’s best-selling non-fiction book about the personal-injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta). His small law firm brought a willful negligence lawsuit against two giant corporations: consumer goods conglomerate Beatrice and chemical giant W.R. Grace. It’s an absorbing story but it was presented in such a mangled way, so a lot of the drama was sucked out of it and it instead became an obvious sob story about an injustice done.

Jan is first shown as a hotshot lawyer full of hubris after winning an ambulance chaser case. He drives his Porsche to Woburn, Massachusetts, to check out a potential law suit representing some families whose children died because of leukemia and might have become seriously ill because of the toxins trichloroethylene (TCE) in their drinking water. He turns the case down when his clients who are only after an apology and can’t tell him who to sue that has the big bucks to pay. But that all changes when he gets a speeding ticket on his way back to Boston and observes from a bridge the site where the dumping from a tannery owned by Beatricefoods takes place, and where W.R. Grace has a chemical plant.

This Steven Zaillian directed film has traces of the same intelligence he has shown in his previous work as director of “Searching For Bobby Fischer” and as a screenwriter for “Schindler’s List,” but loses its fire-power with scenes of endless courtroom hagglings and what seems like an interminable amount of time spent in giving prep classes on how the court system works.

The big corporations throw their big law firms against his small one, with Grace represented by the arrogant Cheeseman (Norris) and Beatrice by the wily and eccentric Jerome Facher (Duvall). Duvall hams it up with his oddball tics and distracting mannerisms — during a phone conversation with a fellow lawyer, he willfully bounces a ball against the wall. This sets up a battle of David versus Goliath. The film stays on track with the claim that in today’s court system, the odds are rigged against the little guy and that it takes big money to file a law suit against such giants. This is proven when Travolta’s law firm is sucked into the case deeper than what they expected, paying huge expenses to do research to prove contamination, as they all go broke and have to mortgage their homes to keep the case going.

The supporting players all have limited roles compared to the two gunslingers, Travolta and Duvall, but perform admirably. William H. Macy is on the Travolta team and makes it plain he’s along only for the money, with him handling the financial matters. But, Macy cracks from the strain of going belly-up. The others in the firm, Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek, follow their leader Travolta until they see he actually believes in his clients and they thereby desert him. Dan Hedaya is the tannery owner who lies on the stand and can’t be shaken from his lie until the case is appealed by the EPA. John Lithgow is the judge who sides with his big business friends. James Gandolfini is the only witness who works at the site of W.R. Grace willing to take a chance and tell what he knows. Sydney Pollack is the arrogant head of W.R. Grace who won’t talk business with Travolta when he invites him to the Harvard club, but will only talk shop when he’s back at his office and he can put his feet up on the table. Anne Anderson is the gentle Woburn local who is alarmed that her son died of leukemia and initiated the lawsuit to protect others in the community, as her persistence finally won out.

For all its telling faults in its storytelling ability, the film had an aura of reality about it that the John Grisham movies never have. The entertainment value for the film comes from the simulated gun duel between the inexperienced Travolta taking on the skilled veteran Duvall, who always seems to be one move ahead of him. That Travolta undergoes a change of character during the law suit and really believes what he’s doing is right is shown in his subtle changes of expression, no longer pretending to feel the pain of his clients but tunes into his pain. His ego gets a thorough examination and the superficial things he was once interested in fail to move him anymore. While Duvall is shown as the masterful Machiavellian tactician with absolutely no heart, whose M.O. is to shred his opponents as well as those who are under him. When one of his staff interrupts his quiet office lunch of listening to the Red Sox game to do him a favor and give him an important document on the upcoming lawsuit, he spitefully rails into him for not going out to lunch.

What the film failed to do, is to bring a sense of urgency. Though the story line was sympathetic to the families’ plight and caught the essence of what Travolta was up against, which makes it better than most Hollywood films, it just couldn’t drive the fastball thrown down the middle of the plate over the ‘Green Monster’ in Fenway Park for a home run. The story became less than compelling and more of an exercise about who was the better actor/lawyer Duvall or Travolta. The great social impact of the lawsuit never caught on during the film when that should have been the driving force, as it was when told in a gripping way in the book.

John Travolta in A Civil Action (1998)

REVIEWED ON 6/11/2000 GRADE: B-  https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/