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(1998) (John Travolta, Robert Duvall) (PG-13)

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Drama: A personal injury lawyer risks ruining his career by representing the families of several children who died of leukemia against two large and powerful corporations that may be responsible.
Jan Schlichtmann (JOHN TRAVOLTA) is a highly successful personal injury lawyer who enjoys settling cases as much as he does spending his subsequent earnings. While the firm that he runs with his partners, Kevin Conway (TONY SHALHOUB) and Bill Crowley (ZELJKO IVANEK), and their accountant, James Gordon (WILLIAM H. MACY), may be small, it's highly profitable.

When they get a call from Anne Anderson (KATHLEEN QUINLAN), a Woburn, Massachusetts mother whose son died of leukemia in the early 80's, they immediately turn her down. While she claims that her son's death, and those of other local kids were caused by nearby factories, including a tannery, dumping toxins that worked their way into the working class town's water, the firm won't take the case because they don't see any defendants with deep pockets that would make it financially worth their while.

Traveling to Woburn to inform Anne of their decision, Jan is touched by her and several other parents' pleas, and on a sudden whim, decides to check out the factories. When he discovers that one of them is a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods -- a wealthy conglomerate -- Jan has no problem convincing his partners to take the case.

The problem is, however, that proving negligence on the part of Beatrice and another conglomerate, W.R. Grace, will be expensive and consume every moment of the partners' time. Nonetheless, they take the case and hire many specialists to start digging for some facts. After getting the testimony of a friendly witness, Al Love (JAMES GANDOLFINI), the firm finally gets the case to trial before Judge Walter J. Skinner (JOHN LITHGOW).

As the case unfolds over time, Jan must then not only contend with his well financed judicial adversaries, Jerome Facher (ROBERT DUVALL) a savvy lawyer who represents Beatrice, and William Cheeseman (BRUCE NORRIS) who does the same for W.R. Grace, but also the fact that the firm is quickly sinking ever deeper into financial debt.

Younger kids probably won't, but teens attracted by the star-powered cast may want to.
For some strong language.
  • JOHN TRAVOLTA plays a high living and extremely successful personal injury lawyer who initially takes this case because he sees big dollar signs. Soon, however, he experiences the plight of the claimants and, while quickly developing a conscience and dedication to the case, financially ruins himself, his partners, and their firm.
  • ROBERT DUVALL plays a low-key, but extremely savvy defense attorney who will do anything to absolve his client of any charges.
  • KATHLEEN QUINLAN plays a still grieving parent who simply wishes for the guilty party to confess and offer an apology for their wrongdoings.


    OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
    Based on the true story of a lawyer's steadfast dedication to a case that drove him, his partners, and their firm to financial ruin, "A Civil Action" is a compelling courtroom drama with outstanding performances from its stellar cast.

    Although the amount of artistic license regarding the historical events is unclear (unless one is intimately familiar with the case or the voluminous bestseller by Jonathan Harr based on those events), the apparent fact that the film sticks close to the truth eventually causes the film to lose a great deal of its early momentum. Nonetheless, it's still a solid dramatic piece and should please fans of the legal genre.

    That said, this isn't your typical courtroom thriller. Where the film excels, but ultimately may disappoint mainstream moviegoers, is in writer/director Steve Zaillian and actor John Travolta's depiction of the latter's character.

    Although Jan Schlichtmann is a crackerjack whiz at personal injury lawsuits (as demonstrated in a fun opening sequence), the case he tackles in this film proves that he's in over his head and way out of his league. For those expecting the typical Hollywood film where the underdog lawyer finally figures out how to best his rivals and win the case, this film may just come off as a disappointment.

    That isn't to indicate how the final court case is resolved -- in fact, it perfectly plays out like a real life case where the outcome is always uncertain. That's not only because of the fact that this is a true story, but also by the way that Zaillian continuously reveals decidedly unconventional, and un-Hollywood like elements that suggest that things may not go well for the protagonist and his goal.

    Nonetheless, it's not hard to see what drew Zaillian and the cast to this film. The near decade long story that unfolded in the 80's has all of the dramatic underpinnings and conflict of a strong courtroom drama that would play out well on the big screen.

    There are several negligence-based deaths, two large corporations with the gall and resources to cover up and then defend their misdeeds, and an ambulance chaser of a lawyer who suddenly gets a conscience and moral dedication that slowly ruins his and others' careers. It's the classic David vs. Goliath set-up that's been portrayed in many other films such as the relatively recent "Class Action" (Gene Hackman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and has proven to be a timeless audience favorite.

    What really makes the film work, however, is the top drawer talent in front of, and behind, the camera. Steve Zaillian, who delivered the solidly constructed "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and won an Oscar for his screenplay of "Schindler's List," keeps otherwise mundane meetings and other dramatic episodes interesting by inter-cutting related events, thus increasing their intensity by simultaneously showing their "cause" and "effect" elements.

    Of course the film, much like the real life events from which it's based, is character driven. While Zaillian has done a wonderful job of fleshing out his characters and equipping them with some nicely drawn traits and perfect dialogue, he couldn't have dreamed of a better cast to play those parts.

    John Travolta, who's made a lucrative living playing a combination of both good and bad characters ("Phenomenon," "Pulp Fiction," and the ultimate combination of both, "Face/Off"), is extremely good as the determined, but embattled protagonist. Basically a high-living opportunist at first, Travolta nicely allows his character to develop a conscience and is always believable in the part.

    The best performance, which should come as no surprise, however, is delivered by the great Robert Duvall. While it doesn't hurt that he's been handed the best-written character in the film, this five-time Oscar nominee (including last year's "The Apostle" and a win for "Tender Mercies"), simply becomes his low-key, unassuming character who just so happens to be a highly experienced and extremely savvy defense lawyer. The subtle nuances that Duvall brings to his character are brilliant, and it will be a horrible injustice if he doesn't receive his sixth nomination for this role.

    Supporting performances are solid across the board. From William H. Macy ("Pleasantville") as the increasingly nerve-wracked accountant, to the always dependable Tony Shalhoub ("The Siege"), and from Kathleen Quinlan ("Breakdown") as the grieving, but determined mother to John Lithgow (TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun") as the seemingly not so neutral judge, the cast is to die for and all deliver superb performances.

    Now, for the small complaints. While it's a welcomed change to see a non-Hollywood legal drama -- where things continually go bad for the lawyer who doesn't have the magical legal maneuver that will save the day -- the film does (purposefully) lose its early and highly energetic momentum as the story progresses. Although that's not a horrible sin, the gradual slowing may disappoint many moviegoers as much as the subsequent growing despair that permeates the proceedings.

    A smaller objection, but one that pertains to character motivation, involves the catalyst that spurs Jan into action regarding the case. While it's nice enough to see the flashy, money consumed lawyer slowly change his ways and become a man who fights for what he believes in, the push to get him there is rather weak as presented in the film. With time equaling money, it's highly unlikely that Jan would drive to the small town simply to turn down their request for representation (instead he'd get one of his lackeys to do the deed).

    Similarly, it feels a bit forced that he would stop on the way out of town to snoop around the factories. While that's obviously needed for him to discover that some large corporations are behind the mess (a good dramatic moment), some simple script changes (artistic license or not) would have made all of that a bit easier to swallow.

    In addition, although he (and we) briefly see the still shell-shocked parents, there simply isn't enough devastated community grief to really make the film deliver the full impact that it wishes to (as say, compared to the somewhat similar "The Sweet Hereafter").

    Even so, Zaillian smartly avoids the Hollywood cliche where the protagonist, needing the catalyst to provoke him into action, looks to his own kids and thinks that this horrible injustice could have happened to them. While a minor character does feel that way, it's nice not to have that old standard motivate our "hero," and instead has his long-repressed conscience do that for him.

    Of course those are just some minor nitpicking objections, and they don't really come close to derailing what is otherwise an engrossing and solidly constructed dramatic piece. While it's not the courtroom thriller that many may have been led to believe, it's still quite good and features outstanding performances from its great cast. We give "A Civil Action" a 7.5 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the content found in this PG-13 rated film. Profanity, which includes 3 uses of the "f" word (that normally would draw an R rating), is the worst of the material. Beyond the bad attitudes of the corporations and their lawyers, and some mild drinking and smoking, the rest of the film is void of major objectionable content.

  • Jan and his team celebrate with champagne after a settlement.
  • The partners have some open beer bottles in front of them.
  • Some people in a bar drink.
  • Some teens who are throwing lit firecrackers at a factory owner appear to be drinking.
  • None.
  • The corporations (and some of their employees) have both for illegally dumping chemicals at their factories, for trying to cover that up, and for trying to buy off Jan and his court case. Some may also see the lawyers defending them as having both.
  • Some may see Jan as having some of both for taking him, his partners and their firm over the brink of financial ruin. In addition, he and his partners initially are ambulance chasers and more interested in financial returns than the actual claimants.
  • Judge Skinner seems to have a bit of both for seemingly siding with Facher and his defense.
  • None.
  • None.
  • Phrase: "Shut the f*ck up."
  • Gordon resorts to buying lottery tickets while trying to alleviate the firm's cash problem.
  • Some teens (who appear to be drinking) throw lit firecrackers at a factory owner.
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • 3 "f" words, 1 "s" word, 2 damns, 1 ass (used with "hole"), 1 crap, and 4 uses of "Jesus" and 1 use of "G-damn" as exclamations.
  • None.
  • Gordon smokes several times during the movie, especially when the firm gets deeper in hock.
  • Some people in a bar smoke.
  • Anne is still affected by the death of her son, as are other parents in similar situations.
  • One father recounts the story of watching his son die in their car on the way to the clinic.
  • Court cases and the "back room" deals that often take place and lead to settlement.
  • The historical accuracy of this portrayal of a true story.
  • The illegal dumping of chemicals that companies often participate in.
  • Jan knocks things over and around in his office in a momentary fit of anger.

  • Reviewed December 17, 1998 / Posted on December 25, 1998

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