Wednesday 16 February 2022

Movie Review: A Civil Action (1998)

A legal drama, A Civil Action features a pesky lawyer going after polluting industries, with mixed results.

In Boston, successful personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) runs a small but thriving firm with his partners Conway (Tony Shalhoub) and Gordon (William H. Macy). Residents of the small town of Woburn, Massachusetts, represented by grieving mom Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), seek his help in a poisoned water case believed to be responsible for the death of seven children. 

Initially not interested, Jan accepts the case after discovering he can sue two large firms, Grace & Company and Beatrice Foods, that are operating nearby industries. Grace's attorney is the nervous William Cheeseman (Bruce Norris), but Beatrice is represented by the wily Jerry Facher (Robert Duvall). With Judge Skinner (John Lithgow) presiding, the case drags on, placing a huge financial strain on Jan and his team. But when the defendants offer to settle, Jan surprisingly holds out, believing the families are owed more.

An adaptation of the 1995 book by Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action is based on real events. With a stellar cast, writer and director Steven Zaillian competently translates an environmental pollution case to the screen, mixing personal lawyer duels with court room tactics, investigative field work, victim statements, and the financial drain of it all. Most of the necessary ingredients are here and the film ticks along nicely, but never quite ignites. 

The problems include a rather superficial representation of Jan Schlichtmann as a jaunty man-about-town but with no private life, and equally nothing is known about the families of his partners Conway and Gordon. Their firm's dalliance with bankruptcy is therefore robbed of impact, even as it starts occupying the centre of the drama, leaving dead children and legal case strategy floundering on the sidelines. Robert Duvall as Facher is the menacing, supremely confident counterpart to Jan, but he hovers over the case like a caricaturish dark overlord, again devoid of depth.

Jan's evolution from money-grabbing personal injury lawyer to an attorney with a conscious is the drama's pivot point. John Travolta is more than capable of carrying the load of his character's complexity, and Zaillian provides multiple threads to justify the transformation. Personally, Jan feels belittled for his small-scale status by both the judge and his legal counterparts. And emotionally he starts to empathize with the suffering parents. He responds by digging in his heels and shooting for the moon.

Unfortunately, stubbornness gets in the way of both satisfying the victims and cinematic quality. With a fragmented verdict, A Civil Action limps towards a long postscript ending, a case of justice delayed eroding narrative punch.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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