Movie Reviews

Movie Review: A Civil Action – Travolta is Surprisingly Good as a Smarmy Lawyer

Written by Jonathan Harr and Steven Zaillian
Directed by Steven Zaillian

The area I live in has a body of water known by the nickname “Three-Eyed Fish Pond.” It borders a site once owned by a metallurgical corporation. It’s documented that the corporation disposed of hazardous by-products of their cast-making process right on the site. Now there are monitoring wells that are showing progress in the cleaning up of groundwater, although two municipal wells near the site are still shut down. My family is part of the 8,100 people within three miles of this land. Our water, as well as all of the municipal wells in and around the affected area, are tested at least annually.

Perhaps this is why I didn’t view the film A Civil Action quite as poorly as others have. People tend to think corporations in this country will do what is right all on their own, with no watchdogs and no ability to sue when their desire for profit above all else has fatal results for those who are affected by their practices.

John Travolta is Jan Schlichtmann; an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer. He sees cases in terms of dollar signs and knows which cases to take to gain the most. He’s totally full of himself, having just been voted one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors.

His firm has taken on what is termed an “orphan” case. Cases like these are kicked around from firm to firm. They have merit but are difficult to prove and likely there will be little to gain (financially) in the long run. It has to do with the deaths of twelve children in the city of Woburn, Massachusetts, that some residents believe is related to the contamination of drinking water. Schlichtmann visits the plaintiffs, intending to kick the case out of his firm as well. When he meets with the residents affected, he basically tells them this. However, on the way home he visits the area where the residents believe the contamination occurred and learns of a possible connection between the contamination of the water supply and food giant Beatrice Foods. Suddenly, he reconsiders. There’s money to be made in that there water!

Once Schlichtmann trounces the opposition lawyer who tries to get the case dismissed, the big guns are brought in. Robert Duvall stars as the opposition lawyer Jerome Facher. He’s there to defend W.R. Grace, right or wrong.

The case seems to change as victims are deposed. Schlichtmann hears their stories and it seems to speak to him. He brings in doctors, geologists, and environmentalists – all of which cost the firm a great deal. Everyone in the firm is working on the case, including partners James Gordon (portrayed by William H. Macy) and Kevin Conway (portrayed by Tony Shalhoub). They are taking out lines of credit and trying to cut costs in all other areas of the firm, just to support this case. It threatens to ruin the firm.

That’s not to say Schlichtmann is doing it for altruistic reasons. He sees the big payday at the end of the road and that’s what he’s striving for. That it also might be something actually noble in the long run seems to be simmering just below the surface, rather than the main reason he is doing what he is doing.

Travolta is good. He’s confident in the case and his abilities and is seeing dollar signs before his eyes. He comes off not as a great lawyer, but as one who knows how to play the system for the most financial gain. His story is really secondary in this film to what’s happening with the case, but in some ways, his is the better one. In the beginning, he seems to have it all, but it’s an illusion he’s managed to create for himself. In reality, he’s a mediocre lawyer and by the end of the film, that realization has come not only to him but to those who have followed him onto the abyss. Travolta does a great job with the character who’s not very likable. Although the performance fell short of convincing me of his redemption, he was terrific as a fish out of water when it came down to having to really be a lawyer in the courtroom.

A lot of that probably has to do with Robert Duvall, Duvall is magnificent and what really makes the film. He has Facher seem like a doddering fool, who is actually more savvy and unnerving than the opposing lawyers would care to admit. His layering style is distasteful since it’s pretty much a given he’s defending the big bad corporation who committed all of these heinous acts. However, he’s a masterful lawyer in the courtroom who knows how to intimidate the opposing counsel and play the jury and judge. Right or wrong he is the lawyer you want on your side in a courtroom.

Director Steven Zaillian did a terrific job with the pace of the story and creates a riveting character in Facher. He cuts back and forth between the court case and Facher lecturing at Harvard to show how it’s not a matter of right or wrong or the search for the truth and justice. It’s all a matter of style and Facher knows that angle best of all. Zaillian lets that be the message of the film in a sense and that’s a sad commentary on our society.

The supporting cast is great. Macy is in top form as the partner who sees his cushy life evaporating before his eyes and is unable to stop or get off the train-wreck his partner has created. John Lithgow as an egocentric judge is too familiar to those of us who remember the O.J. Simpson trial. He manages to capture the essence of a judge who has probably been in the bench too long and never gotten as far as he desired. Kathleen Quinlan as the parent of one of the children is sympathetic. Her character has perhaps the only speech-like moment near the end, and it loses its power against the backdrop of the fact that it probably still has put the law firm out of business.

The look of the film is quite nice. The tone is upbeat and bright when things are going good for Schlichtmann. When the case seems to take a serious, and later on, more desperate, tone it becomes darker and dreary. As the world he knows spirals further and further down, the film seems to feed into that and it sets him up for more sympathy. Does Schlichtmann get what he deserved in the end?

A Civil Action is character-driven, with no real apex. There’s no grand courtroom speech that makes everything okay. In some ways, the story is tied up the way we expect, but it’s done through a series of text at the end, not in a gratifying moment where justice seems to be served. That real people lived this case (and others living through similar cases right now) seems to take a backseat to the battle between the lawyers.

In the end, I thought of something I heard two years ago: in a lawsuit, no one makes money or wins except the lawyers. And sometimes, even they don‘t “win” in a tangible way.


” Theatrical Trailer
” Production Featurette
” Film Recommendations

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