A Civil Action
Reviewed by: W.J. Kimble
Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, Zeljko Ivanek, James Gandolfini, Bruce Norris, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Stephen Fry, Dan Hedaya | Director: Steven Zaillian | Released by: Touchstone Pictures
By this definition, a civil action would mean “a series of events and episodes that reveal the interactions between citizens of a specified society.” “A Civil Action” does just that, but with a unique twist. By revealing the true motives of many who practice law, it actually exposes the corruption of some members of our legal system and the coldness of some of those who are supposed to represent us (the ordinary citizens).
According to law, however, the word “civil” means “Relating to the rights of private individuals and legal proceedings concerning these rights as distinguished from criminal, military, or international regulations or proceedings.” While most of us associate the term “a civil action” in this fashion, Steven Zaillian, the director, gives us a glimpse of the greed and avarice which motivates our judicial advocates. Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), while being interviewed on a radio talk show, tells the listeners that to get the big money, a case shouldn’t ever go to trial. He tells them to forget due process, justice or any feelings for the client. After all, empathy clouds judgment. He says that when it comes to personal injury suits, the goal is to reach an out-of-court settlement because, in a court of law, litigants are “lucky to find anything.that resembles the truth.” So much for defending the rights of private individuals!
Zaillian reveals to us the ego, greed, tenacity and passion that compels the legal team of Schlichtmann, Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub, “Paulie”), Bill Crowley (Zeljko Ivanek, “Courage Under Fire”) and their accountant, James Gordon (William H. Macy, “Wag the Dog”). He also exposes the corruption and the craftiness of corporate litigation through the well financed judicial adversaries, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall, “Deep Impact,” “The Apostle”) and William Cheeseman (Bruce Norris). These men representing Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace respectively. He even reveals the pomposity of some of our judges, who sit on the bench and preside over these cases. Judge Walter J. Skinner (John Lithgow, TV’s “3rd Rock from the Sun”) almost insures the demise of the people’s case in favor of the corporations that are being sued for toxic poisoning of the water supply, which caused a series of leukemia deaths in Woburn, Massachusetts.
“A Civil Action” is based on a true story. In the 1980’s Schlichtmann sued for millions of dollars on behalf of the parents who lost their loved ones to the insensitivity of these corporate giants. In the process, he loses his home, his car, his offices, his practice, and his possessions. Eventually, he loses even the respect and support of his peers. With the help of an inside man and an actual eyewitness, Al Love (James Gandolfini, “Get Shorty”), Schlichtmann finally wins a small reprieve. But the loss is horrendous and John Travolta, in a stunning moment of emotion, reveals the trauma that befell this man of honor and intrigue. The case is only won, when Schlichtmann sends the EPA information that ultimately leads to a criminal investigation and trial.
When did this man of greed become a man of integrity? We are never really told. While Zaillian does hint at it, he chooses to leave it up to our imagination, rather than reveal it directly. Overall, “A Civil Action” is a good movie, and most likely a film to be nominated for “Best Picture of the Year.” We may even see Travolta receive a nomination for “Best Actor” and Duvall for “Best Supporting Actor.” Because of its portrayal of the psychology of litigation and the motivation of those who represent us, however, many will find this movie boring.
“A Civil Action” is heavy on profanity; contains no nudity; and would be best seen by teens (in their high-school years) through adults.
Year of Release—1998