A Civil Action

on December 25, 1998 by Wade Major
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Tarnished by years of pulpish John Grisham adaptations, the revered courtroom drama genre wins back a portion of its luster with "A Civil Action," writer/director Steven Zaillian's intelligent and polished adaptation of Jonathan Harr's fact-based chronicle about a Boston toxic waste dumping trial in the 1980s. Though the plot plays largely by the numbers, Zaillian treats the material with a welcome level of maturity that manages to sustain interest even when the storyline doesn't.
John Travolta stars as personal injury attorney Jan Schlichtmann, an oily ambulance chaser who, with his three partners, has built a mini-empire on the suffering of others. It is a rural toxic waste case, however, that lures Schlichtmann to abandon his usual cache of auto accident and workers comp claims when he discovers that the tannery believed responsible for the leukemia deaths of several children is owned by none other than deep-pocketed mega-corporation Beatrice. But taking on the likes of a corporate heavyweight like Beatrice proves to be far beyond the resources of Schlichtmann and his partners as the battle pushes their firm to the brink of bankruptcy.
Not surprisingly, the Schlichtmann character is similar to that of Oskar Schindler in Zaillian's Oscar-winning "Schindler's List" screenplay--a ruthless opportunist who develops a conscience just in time to risk losing everything in the service of it. Admittedly, the device is less effective here, but it works well enough to freshen the otherwise creaky courtroom drama conventions with which audiences will undoubtedly be well familiar.
The downside to the "Schindler" approach, of course, is that it makes the attorney's plight the primary focus of the story, rather than that of the clients, an angle that has worked previously in no less a film than Sidney Lumet's classic "The Verdict." Its real value here, however, is to offer audiences welcome respite from the sloppy sentimentality in which the recent crop of "underdog attorney" films have so shamelessly wallowed.
Not to be overlooked is Zaillian's growing skill as a director, which he so ably debuted with "Searching for Bobby Fischer." Elegantly stylized and crisply edited, the film also features a host of fine performances, with Travolta and William H. Macy noteworthy standouts. It is Robert Duvall, however, as Beatrice's brilliantly crafty lead attorney, Jerome Facher, who steals the film's most memorable moments.
Excellent work from composer Danny Elfman, editor Wayne Wahrman, cinematographer Conrad Hall and production designer David Gropman round out the effort. Starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, John Lithgow and Kathleen Quinlan. Directed and written by Steven Zaillian. Produced by Scott Rudin, Robert Redford and Rachel Pfefffer. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some strong language. Running time: 115 min
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