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   A CIVIL ACTION (1998) 

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CAST
John Travolta
Robert Duvall
Tony Shalhoub
William H. Macy
Zeljko Ivanek
Bruce Norris
John Lithgow
Kathleen Quinlan
Peter Jacobson
James Gandolfini
Kathy Bates

DIRECTED BY
Steven Zaillian

PURCHASE


DVD



The Novel




Time: 112 mins.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Courtroom Drama

Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor (Duvall).


A CIVIL ACTION is a prime example of a novel that never should have been adapted for the big screen. They made what was an engrossing and intricate tale of extreme negligence and the medical aftermath into just another hot-shot lawyer on the trail of big money movie. What was so interesting about the book, which is a true story told by the hot-shot lawyer, was seeing how the case came together, understanding all the evidence and learning all about the families. Much like the town from ERIN BROCKOVICH, the residents of Woburn, Massachusetts were poisoned through their drinking water by two large corporations who had chemical plants near the town's water supply.

What made this film vastly less interesting, besides missing Julia's cleavage, is that it's all about the lawyers and not about the people. It lacks heart and a clear vision of who to root for. Yes, the lawyers go through a lot, but mainly, at least in this version, because they think they can make a fair profit from the case. Sure Jan Schlichtmann finally comes to his senses, but it's too little, too late. Travolta does a good job as the slick personal injury lawyer, but his performance is nothing new. For someone who loved the book, this just didn't make the grade.

The film opens with Jan (Travolta) winning his current case before the trial is about to begin. We are to take away from this that his firm is one to beat, filled with the top lawyers on their way to law super stardom. When they're approached by Anne Anderson (Quinlan) about taking her case – a cluster of child leukemia deaths in a small town due to contaminated water – Jan wants nothing to do with it. Small town, means no money. No profit, no case. Anne refuses to back down, forcing Jan, out of guilt, to drive to Woburn to bail out face to face. He's all ready to turn them down, when he learns that there are two multi-million dollar companies operating plants on the river that runs through the town. If they can prove these businesses were dumping cancerous materials in the water, then they can win a huge payday.


"Come on, you've been around long enough to know that a courtroom isn't a place to look for the truth."

The families aren't really interested in the money, they just want the companies to admit what they were doing and be punished for it. Except for one other scene, where one of the father's tells the story of his son's death during a deposition, this is the last we see of the families. Jan has found deep pockets and he's going to make them pay. Since his firm is rather small, proving this case is going to take every person they have and all the money they can throw at it. They'll need doctors and geologists and every other type of expert under the sun to testify, which begins to add up to serious money. As they begin deposing the workers from the various companies, it becomes clear that they are not willing to tell the truth about the dumping of the chemicals. They're more afraid to lose their jobs then go to jail for perjury.

Jan isn't afraid of a little hostility. In fact, it makes him ever more sure that something illicit was going on. Their case turns a corner when one of the worker's, Al Love (Gandolfini), admits that they were dumping chemicals without care behind the plant. This just might be the break they were waiting for. Except for the fact that they're going up against one of the best lawyers in the city, Jerome Facher (Duvall). After hearing the testimony in the families depositions, there is no way he's going to allow them to testify. He tries to warn Jan that he's in way over his head and that he's not going to come out the winner.

Jan refuses to believe him or take his settlement offer. Even though the firm is in serious financial straights, he's not going to settle this case just to save his own ass. The families deserve to be heard. Things don't exactly go the way he thought they should. When they are offered a settlement that will relieve the firm's financial burden and give the families a little something to assuage their loss, Jan rejects the offer. Eight million dollars is but a scratch to companies that make $250 million a year. It's a slap in the face to the suffering of their clients. His partners disagree. They want out, not willing to sacrifice their own families and futures to Jan's folly. This is not a case that can be won. At least not by a small firm like theirs. In the end, Jan finally does get them to pay up, but it's not exactly the way he originally planned.

A CIVIL ACTION isn't a bad film, it's just a hollow one. Though the families get their justice, the way the story ends is not a good denouement to a movie. Works fine in the book, but onscreen I want something more flashy, more uplifting. Plus the meat of the story, at least for me, was all the evidence they managed to come up with. The medical information alone was completely fascinating. By not presenting more of the evidence, the audience is left to believe that it's a good case just because Jan took it. You have to believe he's going to win to be drawn into the fight. I was because I already knew how compelling the data was. For someone who hasn't read the novel, they have nothing to go on except Jan's word. Not good enough. Granted testimony about soil deposits and blood cells may not be the most interesting stuff, but I'm sure they could have done something to illuminate the audience a bit more and still be compelling. Much of the novel IS devoted to Jan's struggle with himself over why he took the case and what it does to his life. However, I'm not that interested in a lawyer's personal and financial problems.

The great cast certainly makes this movie eminently more watchable than it could have been. Duvall and Macy especially bring sparkle to the scenes they are in. Quinlan gives the sorrow of the families a consistent presence which she embues with ultimate sadness. Though she's not on screen for very long, her pain lingers through every frame. Steve Zaillian does a good job directing this, his second feature film. More well-known for his writing skills, he takes a complicated story and turns it into a decent movie. Unfortunately, he left the heart and soul of the book on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, A CIVIL ACTION is the story of a lawyer's redemption, but maybe if we knew more about the lawyer, seeing more than just his material trappings, we would care more about his fate in the first place. With talent like this, it's hard to go wrong. Unfortunately, it could have gone more right. Maybe I was just expecting too much, having been so entranced by the novel. If you haven't read the book, you'll probably enjoy this courtroom saga. It's an interesting take on the price lawyers sometimes have to pay for their clients. If you have read the book, you already know the story and nothing is done better here.



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