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'A Civil Action' Has Plenty of Precedents

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 1999


Civil Action John Travolta (left) stars as a lawyer in "Civil Action." (Touchstone)

Steven Zaillian
John Travolta;
Robert Duvall;
Kathleen Quinlan;
William H. Macy;
John Lithgow
Running Time:
1 hour, 55 minutes
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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There's something innately barbarous about putting a price tag on a human life, as a callous ambulance-chaser discovers in "A Civil Action." A complex, compelling examination of personal-injury law as well as a portrait of personal redemption, the movie quickly sets its tone with a heartless summation of an individual's relative worth.

According to the film, it varies, based on sex, age and race. This conclusion is a predictable, though sadly familiar one: The courts value a white man at the height of his earning power above all others. And children least of all.

Swaggering, fortysomething Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) is more than ready to accept his birthright. As a highly successful litigator, Schlichtmann has come to gauge his self-worth by the material trappings of his success: the cut of his suits, the size of his desk, the make of his wheels.

A Supreme Court-sized ego, however, does not shield him from his own insecurities, nor does his contempt conceal his envy when he measures himself against the established old firms with their Persian carpets, imposing libraries and Harvard degrees.

It is poetic justice when Schlichtmann clashes with Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), a shrewd Harvard law professor defending two multiconglomerates in a wrongful-death suit. Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace allegedly contaminated the wells in a rural New England town and subsequently many local children developed leukemia.

Adapted from Jonathan Harr's hefty bestseller by writer-director Steven Zaillian (who penned "Schindler's List"), the script is built from the facts of a real-life case, which took place in the '80s in Woburn, Mass. As so often happens in the real world, there's an epiphany but no storybook ending. Schlichtmann, in fact, goes bankrupt in his obsessive attempt to best Facher and his weaselly, younger colleague, William Cheeseman (Bruce Norris).

Initially, Schlichtmann is reluctant to take the case – until he learns the alleged culprits are subsidiaries of wealthy corporations. He has every intent of picking those deep pockets, even though Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the Massachusetts mother instrumental in bringing the suit, explains that the parents are more interested in an apology.

Like Oskar Schindler, Schlichtmann ultimately does the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Drawn by the prospect of fame and fortune, he evolves from playboy opportunist to a man of conscience and in the process realizes that true assets cannot be stacked and counted, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. How old is this story?

Certainly, there's nothing new in this battle between callous corporate Goliaths and their morally superior working-class opponents. Luckily, the characters are deliciously acted and the story smartly told. The film is also surprisingly funny for a courtroom drama, thanks in large part to William H. Macy, who as Schlichtmann's exasperated accountant, must come up with ever more creative methods of keeping the firm afloat even as his boss squanders funds in a foolhardy attempt to beat his adversaries.

Duvall, as the niggardly Facher with his worn suit and ancient briefcase, proves a sly and amusing adversary for Travolta's meticulously turned out and overly confident Schlichtmann.

Quinlan is resolute in a pivotal, if negligible role as an activist mother. For the most part, however, she's sentenced to sit in the back, left-hand corner of the court. Perhaps it's unintentional, but the movie proves to be just as guilty of undervaluing women, children, nonwhites and working-class folk as the lawyers, judges and insurance companies it depicts.

Ultimately, the narrative bogs down in a series of reversals that leave both the victims and the viewers without much compensation for the time and trouble they've invested. That's the problem with real life.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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