by Rob Gonsalves
In its omnivorous quest to buy the rights to every story that could possibly be turned into a movie, Hollywood often forgets to question whether said story should be a movie. Some material, it so happens, works best on the stage or the page -- or even on the tube. But Hollywood is in the moviemaking business, so it naturally assumes the noblest form of entertainment is the major motion picture.A Civil Action -- a courtroom drama that tries hard not to be one -- is well-cast, well-acted (sometimes brilliantly acted), and tastefully handled by writer-director Steven Zaillian. So why can't I rise to it? Because the movie does nothing that television can't do; it's a high-powered TV movie. Adapting Jonathan Harr's nonfiction book, Zaillian conscientiously avoids all the clichés we associate with courtroom potboilers. The problem is, he hasn't found much to replace the clichés. Zaillian wants to make a complex film about law, but perhaps only a TV series, which has many hours to develop characters and moral dilemmas, can pull that off.
"Passable but inert legal drama."
Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), when we first meet him, is a proudly cynical ambulance chaser. He knows exactly what he is, and he takes pleasure in being good at it. Then a case arises that challenges his complacency. In Woburn, Massachusetts, twelve children have died of leukemia. Their families, led by grieving mother Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), have been looking for a firm to represent them in a suit against two companies that dumped carcinogenic waste (which seeped into the water). Schlichtmann dismisses the case until he learns that the two companies, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, have deep pockets. He takes the case, and gradually gets personally involved, spending money on the prosecution to the point where his small firm is in danger of going under.
Schlichtmann is a grandstander; he makes a big show of doing everything he can to win, and I began to wonder whether this story shouldn't have been about an obsessive lawyer who sinks his own firm and is damn lucky the EPA is around to go after the polluters when he falters. With the engaging John Travolta in the lead, the movie becomes one more David-and-Goliath morality play -- didn't we just see this in the much more entertaining The Rainmaker? -- instead of what could have been an acerbic Don Quixote tale, with Schlichtmann tilting at the windmill of his own legal-eagle pride. We've even seen the lawyer-and-dead-children story before, in The Sweet Hereafter, a work with more depth than ten movies like this one.
I called A Civil Action a high-powered TV drama, and it is high-powered; the cast is impeccable across the board, particularly William H. Macy as Schlichtmann's frazzled accountant, John Lithgow as an imperious, bemused judge (pitted against Travolta again, 17 years after Blow Out), and a surprise cameo at the end by a recent Travolta co-star. And when Robert Duvall is on the screen, all is forgiven. He plays Jerome Facher, veteran attorney for Beatrice Foods, a great man who takes the measure of everyone he meets and quietly masters them. Some critics are calling the movie complex, but I think Duvall's performance is what they mean; his Jerome Facher defends a polluting corporation, yet we like the bastard, because he, too, knows exactly what he is, and accepts it, even enjoys it -- enjoys the power, the process, the head games. On a TV series, he might be a major character; here, he's a supporting player in a few punchy scenes.Duvall makes those scenes count, and that's what you take with you, chuckling as you recall his sly bits of business. Meanwhile, of course, your thoughts of the twelve dead children fade away.
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originally posted: 01/26/07 16:34:00