Civil Action, A: Zallian’s Legal Thriller Starring Travolta and Robert Duvall

Based on a true story, A Civil Action, Steven Zaillian’s follow-up to his impressive, underestimated Searching for Bobby Fischer, is a solid and intelligent legal thriller that may be too complex in its issues, and too low-key and unexciting in its style, for today’s market demands.

John Travolta stars as Jan Sclichtmann, a personal-injury lawyer who wages an environmental crusade on behalf of eight innocent families against two large corporations, accused of contaminating the town’s drinking water. Commanding as Travolta is, pic belongs to Robert Duvall, who enriches every scene he is in as Travolta’s nemesis, a shrewdly eccentric corporate attorney.

Touchstone faces a challenge in marketing an intricately structured film that is downbeat, lacks clearcut heroes and villains, and is imbued with moral ambiguity in its dissection of the legal profession, corporate ethos, and the disparity of the American class structure, a painful issue avoided by most mainstream movies.

As an issue-oriented film, Civil Action recalls in its complexity and subtle tone Quiz Show, which Robert Redford (credited here as producer) directed, as well as a number of classic, but not terribly commercial American movies: Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, Sydney Pollack’s Absence of Malice. All of these films offered a critical view of America as a materialistic, immoral society that benefits the rich and powerful but lacks genuine concern for its decent and poor classes.

Set in the 1980s in Woburn, Massachusetts, drama involves eight families whose children have died of leukemia. Distressed mother Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), a representative of the families, first approaches Jan Schlichtman (Travolta), a successful attorney reveling in a stream of multi-million dollar verdicts, on the radio, then invites him to visit Woburn.

Claiming that W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods have contaminated the town’s drinking water with chemicals that led to the kids’ death, Anne makes it clear that the parents are not interested in money but in an apology from those responsible. For his part, Jan asserts that he works for a small firm that can’t afford to lose, and that most lawyers would not consider staking large sums of money–and their reputation–on such a “minor” case.

Nonetheless, once aboard, everything seems to be going well for Jan, who gets a jury and hopes that he has the proof needed to win. But as a result of gambling on the quick fix and misjudging his opponents, the case goes awry. What ensues is a finely detailed account of Jan’s search for the truth and the heavy professional and economic toll he pays for this search. Pic’s last chapter, in which Jan conducts a one man crusade in the manner of David and Goliath, is emotionally satisfying and helps remove the downbeat mood of the proceedings.

Inspired by journalist Jonathan Harr’s book, which took 9 years to write, Zaillian’s script benefits from an inside view of court pleadings, manipulative preparation of witnesses, Jan’s daily strategy sessions with his partners, Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub) and Bill Crowley (Zelijko Ivanek). The interactions between Jan and his colleagues are utterly convincing–and touching too–in both their high and low notes. Hardest task is performed by Jan’s legal accountant (a splendid William H. Macy), who has the unenviable job of going time and again to the team’s banker to borrow money as the team finds itself farther and farther in the mire

One of the joys of a film like Reversal of Fortune was watching a unified team of lawyers that, despite a morally dubious cause, rallied around their boss with a strong esprit de corps. This is decidedly not the case here: As Jan and his partners get deeper into the case, ideological as well as pragmatic strife tarnishes their morale to the point where they’re forced to mortgage their houses, let their employees go, and don’t even have a telephone. Indeed, contrary to most Hollywood’s legal movies, Jan is not depicted as a legal eagle and his story is not one of incredible victory. On many levels, it’s a story of defeat.

Some comparisons will be made with the equally bleak The Sweet Hereafter, which also concerns a children’s tragic accident. Yet what’s missing from Civil Action and was so poignant about Egoyan’s film is a portrait of the community at large. One never gets a feel for the emotional effect of the tragedy on the everyday life in town, the division between families which lost children and those which didn’t, the tension between the victims and town members who continue to work for the “villainous” corporations.

The film’s thematic virtues–its refusal to romanticize the story, to sentimentalize the victims, and to glorify the lawyers–and stylistic devices–quiet, contemplative mood, slow, deliberate pacing–are uncharacteristic in today’s Hollywood. It’s hard to recall a recent American movie that disclosed with such bluntness the inner, shabby workings of the legal profession. Gradually it become clear, that the Civil Action is not just about the haves and haves not, but about the sharp hierarchy that prevails within the legal profession: the prestige of the school one attended (Harvard vs. Cornell), the selectivity of private clubs, the contempt for personal injury lawyers as “ambulance chasers,” as Jan reveals in his sharp, ironic voice-over narration that runs throught the film.

Though shot in color, Civil Action almost registers as a monochramtic picture. The rich texture is achieved through ace lenser Conrad L. Hall’s naturalistic lighting and tightly controlled color palette that permeates every aspect, from set design to costumes. Contrasts between the poisoned banks of the Aberjona River and the rundown houses in rural New England and the law firms situated in elegant skyscrapers of downtown Boston, are also sharply drawn by Hall’s camera and David Gropman’s design.

Acting of the entire ensemble is superb, with a strong central performance by Travolta as an arrogant lawyer and one of Boston’s ten most eligible bachelors. Travolta conveys effectively Jan’s transformation from a superficial, materialistic lawyer to a substantial, decent pro, whose tenacity and determination often clash with ego and stubbornness. In what’s easily the yarn’s best-written part, Duvall shines as Jerome Facher, the crafty, highly-skilled, utterly flamboyant trial litigator who successfully defends one of the accused corporations.

The film is sprinkled with standout character performances by Shalhoub and Ivanek as Jan’s hard-working partners, Macy as his disenchanted accountant, Quinlan as the anguished mother, John Lithgow as sardonic bright Judge Skinner, Bruce Norris as a smooth yuppie lawyer, and perhaps best of all, Sydney Pollack as a snobbish, high-powered exec.