Movie Magazine International

A Civil Action

USA - 1999

Movie Review By Heather Clisby

Based on the true story of a litigation nightmare, "A Civil Action" stars John Travolta as Jan Schlictmann, a personal injury lawyer with convenient ethics who sacrifices everything for the sake of one case. Directed by Steven Zaillian, the film focuses on an orphan court case that involves eight dead children and the contaminated water of a Boston suburb.

The opening scene sets the tone for the battle we're about to witness, not just between a few angry parents and a corporate giant, but between a man and his morals. When we meet Schlictmann, he's swiftly wheeling and dealing in the courtroom while his amused voice-over itemizes a list of who is worth more in personal injury law. The brief lesson details how a dead baby brings next to nothing while a white male cut down in the prime of his career means big money all around.

Though peppered with light humor, the film's strength lies in the tragedy it depicts. When children began dying of leukemia at an alarming rate in the small town of Woburn, Massachusetts, concerned citizens want an answer. Led by an outspoken grieving mother, Anne Anderson (played with true anguish by Kathleen Quinlan), the case against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace first went to court in 1986.

Watching Schlictmann stubbornly refuse to settle over and over again is frustrating, not because it seems cheap next to the simple apology the parents want, but because he blindly brings the law firm down with him in flames.

William H. Macy is James Gordon, the firm's accountant who tries desperately to keep the ship from shrinking to a tiny rubber raft. (Justice has its price," is the film's marketing tag-line.) After Gordon lays everyone off, faces repossession of all the office furniture, mortgages everyone's house, maxes out hundreds of credit cards from every corner of the earth, puts hope in lottery tickets and lies to the bank, he finally gets through to Schlictmann that they are in big financial trouble. His efforts are funny and pathetically endearing; when was the last time you felt sorry for any member of a legal team?

Based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr, "A Civil Action" is a film fortunate to be in capable and respectful hands. Travolta actually does some real acting and holds his own against Macy and the great Robert Duvall, who plays the quirky Beatrice lawyer, Jerome Facher.

If you're not happy with our legal system or the advancement of environmental pollution, this film isn't going to assuage your fears. There are enough long, heavy camera shots at suspect glasses of water to keep you buying bottles of Evian for months. As for pinning down the truth, Facher warns Schlictmann, that it can only be found "at the bottom of a bottomless pit."

© 1999 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 1/13/99

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