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An Inactive 'Action'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 1999

  Movie Critic

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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The only "Action" you will encounter in "A Civil Action" is in the title.

Mind you, this fact-based drama about the 1982 lawsuit accusing corporate giants W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods of contaminating the waters of Woburn, Mass., does have a pretty cool scene of a lake on fire – its dark, poisoned surface bursting into flame when a firecracker is accidentally tossed in. Yet that startling shot comes very late in the game, and the lake is really not much more than a small pond.

In dramatic terms, it's a red herring, an explosion used by filmmaker Steve Zaillian more for cinematic effect than exposition. It's not so much a false clue thrown in to mislead the crusading protagonist, based on real-life personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, but one that misleads the audience into thinking that we will finally get the deus ex machina we have been waiting for, some eleventh-hour witness whose testimony finally puts the bad guys – whoever they might be – in jail.

That only happens in the movies, though, and this, so to speak, is real life.

That Zaillian remains faithful to the historical facts of the case is admirable. His cynicism about truth, justice and the American way is richly deserved by a legal system that habitually translates right and wrong into dollars and cents. But such a jaundiced view of litigation, however authentic, is not necessarily the stuff of great drama, even of the legal-thriller variety, which by definition is confined to a claustrophobic courtroom.

Based on Jonathan Harr's painstakingly researched book about the Woburn case, "A Civil Action" introduces us to Schlichtmann (John Travolta) as a slick Boston attorney who is very good at one thing and one thing only: forcing companies with deep pockets to settle for big bucks by dangling a plaintiff in a wheelchair – or a mother who has lost a baby – in front of a jury. What he's not so good at is actually trying cases.

When Schlichtmann finds out that his law partners (solid Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek) have accepted as clients eight Woburn families looking to blame someone for the leukemia deaths of their children, he initially tries to drop them –l; until he stumbles onto the fact that corporate giants Grace and Beatrice own plants that used toxic solvents in the neighborhood. What begins as lawyerly maneuvering for a cash settlement ultimately becomes a quixotic quest for the more elusive goal of moral accountability.

As the case grinds on for years, Schlichtmann becomes not only a more compassionate human being but a better – although bankrupt – lawyer. In the dour film's only laugh line, Schlichtmann's staff accountant (amusingly put-upon William H. Macy) pulls a credit card from an obscure bank out of a stack of plastic he has been using to pay for the firm's mounting expenses. "Farmer's Bank of Iowa," he notes with gallows humor.

The evolution of Schlichtmann is nicely delineated by Travolta, who has the well-fed but haunted look of an ambulance chaser who for the first time discovers himself face to face with a mission. It helps that he has Robert Duvall to play off of as Beatrice corporate counsel Jerome Facher. Rumpled, eccentric and crazy like a fox, Facher uses the genial country lawyer shtick to mask a shark's killer instinct.

Although packaged as a David vs. Goliath legal battle, "A Civil Action" is less a slamming indictment of industrial polluters than of the legal profession and the judicial system itself. Those who remember the Woburn case will at least be pleased that, in art, as in life, true satisfaction is not easily found.

While "A Civil Action" maintains a taut and suspenseful pace for most of its two hours, the movie runs out of narrative steam in the denouement, as a series of increasingly frustrating court decisions are rendered in a cinematic montage of newspaper headlines and shots of a forklift carrying stacked boxes full of legal documents. Gripping stuff in a book, I'm sure, but hardly great story fodder for a visual medium.

Interspersed throughout the film are also a series of portentous, Hitchcockian close-ups of glasses of water, meant to foreshadow the epiphany of sorts that Schlichtmann has about 20 minutes before the film's conclusion. Unfortunately, his "Ah-ha!" experience leads nowhere. There is no smoking gun, no hidden microchip, not even a clear villain to hiss at or hero to cheer.

The film's sardonic tone and its lack of a manufactured ending are refreshingly un-Hollywood, but the lack of a satisfying payoff may leave many viewers looking at that giant water glass on the screen and wondering whether it is really half full or half empty.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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