Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle A Civil Action

By Russell Smith

JANUARY 11, 1999: 

D: Steven Zaillian; with John Travolta, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, Kathleen Quinlan, Robert Duvall, Bruce Norris, Dan Hedaya, James Gandolfini, Zeljko Ivanek, John Lithgow, Sydney Pollack, Stephen Fry. (PG-13, 112 min.)

Many a bleary-brained air traveler was blessed last year by Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action, a personal nominee for the Airport Newsstand-Book Hall of Fame. But when Steven Zaillian's ambitious adaptation hits the in-flight movie circuit I'm not so sure it'll be the same kind of flyers' savior. The underlying problem is the mainstream film format's length constraints, which seem to have forced a rude bowdlerization of the story. What Harr's book has going for it is the power of accumulation ñ of details, facts, characterizations, whiplash story turnarounds, and prismatic shifts of understanding as new facts illuminate the old. The basic scenario is a real-life classic from the annals of personal injury law: a class action suit by small-town parents over a deadly "leukemia cluster" they blamed on well-water pollution from local plants owned by Beatrice Foods and Grace Industries. The lawyer who ultimately took on their hard-to-prove case was Jan Schlictmann (Travolta). In truth, Schlictmann's tiny, modestly capitalized firm should've tucked tail and run from the clash with Grace and Beatrice's hordes of Gieves and Hawkes-suited badasses. Predictably, though, Schlictmann went on a lawyer-ego bender, for which he paid dearly in both financial and professional terms before justice (of a sort) was done. Harr's book takes its sweet time to illuminate all the elements of this engrossing story. Not only do we learn of barristerial machismo, but also epidemiology, geology, the philosophical bases of tort law, and the uneasy relationship that process-oriented law has always had with the touchy-feely moral notion of "justice." But with only two hours to tell his story, Zaillian is forced to do some serious triage. Predictably, he elects to keep the elements that seem most obviously movie-friendly: the fall and redemption of Schlictmann and a trumped-up Ultimate WWF Death Match between the forces of justice (represented by Schlictmann), and callous, buck-chasing cynicism (chiefly embodied by Beatrice's lead attorney, Jerome Facher, played by Duvall). Not that these elements can't make for good cinema. In fact, one key confrontation between Duvall and Travolta, in which Duvall drops the curmudgeonly but likable eccentric mask he's previously worn and reveals the waxy, cadaverous face of total nihilism, is as brilliantly staged and acted as any we're likely to see this year. Schlictmann's painful trudge toward moral redemption is also well-delineated in another strong performance by Travolta ñ even if he starts out as so much of a putz that you actually kind of enjoy watching him get ground into hamburger. A procession of vivid supporting turns by Macy, Shalhoub, Lithgow, Hedaya, and Quinlan keep ennui from ever totally prevailing. And Zaillian displays a masterful feel for the emotional resonance not only of overall environments but the tiny, revelatory details within them. Still, for all its craftsmanlike sheen, this film is so sketchy, obvious, and idea-poor compared to Harr's book that you can't help wishing Zaillian had paid more attention to its warnings about biting off more than you can chew.
3.0 stars

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