A Civil Action (1998)
Directed by Steven Zaillian
Cast: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Stephen Fry, William H. Macy, James Gandolfini, Kathleen Quinlan, Tony Shalhoub, Dan Hedaya, John Lithgow, Mary Mara, Kathy Bates.
1998 115 minutes
Rated: (for profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 10, 1999.
Since director Steven Zaillian previously wrote the powerful screenplay for 1993's Steven Spielberg drama "Schindler's List" and directed 1993's intelligent "Searching for Bobby Fischer," his new film, "A Civil Action," should most likely be looked upon as an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise prosperous career. What doesn't make sense is how such high-profile and superb actors as John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, and Kathleen Quinlan got involved in this project, which is both dull and completely ineffective. The film, which involves a small community of children who mysteriously died of leukemia, certainly contains the type of story to be emotionally-charged, but somehow all signs of feeling have been completely removed from the proceedings, leaving us with nothing more than a poorly-done courtroom drama.
Based on a book by Jonathan Hart, which was consequently based on a true account, "A Civil Action" is set in 1982 in the town of Woburn, Mass., where personal injury lawyer Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta) decides to take on the case of eight families who simply want an apology for their children's death from leukemia due to unknown causes. Jan originally decides to drop the case, but when he stumbles across to corporate giants, Grace and Beatrice Foods, who have plants located near the families' homes, he sees all of the pieces suddenly fall into place: the two companies have been leaking harmful chemicals into the nearby lake which, thus, goes into the city's drinking water. Suddenly, after hearing about the families' heartbreak and personal stories, he begins to care for them and becomes determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, even though he is warned by his staff accountant (William H. Macy) that no money is coming in to them, only going out. Also figuring into the story is Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), Beatrice Foods' corporate counsel, who finds himself in heated waters when Jan will not accept his $20-million offer to settle the case.
Coming from such a talented writer, director, and cast, not to mention one of the most interesting film composers, Danny Elfman, "A Civil Action" is an astoundingly empty-headed drama, one that includes an intriguing story and somehow transforms it into an admittedly tiresome and occasionally even boring experience. Perhaps one of its major problems was that in its attempts to be a relatively uncommercial motion picture, Zaillian has misplaced its refreshing unconventional attitude with an absence of magnetism and even meaning.
Watching the film, I couldn't help but notice its similarities with 1997's far, far superior film "The Sweet Hereafter," which dealt with a lawyer, played brilliantly by Ian Holm, investigating a school bus accident that killed a number of children. In his attempts to find someone who may have been responsible for the accident, Holm interviews the grieving parents, as well as the sole surviving passenger, a teenage girl, which starts to remind him of his own teenage daughter, a young drug-addict who has run away from home. Not only was the plotting similar to "A Civil Action," but it also had the same exact running time of 115 minutes. Considering this, it is amazing how fulfilling and truthful "A Sweet Hereafter" was, not only concentrating on the school bus accident, but delving deeply into Ian Holm's character and his own personal demons, as well as the teenage girl. In "A Civil Action," however, I have no idea where the running time went, since the film is virtually two hours of nothingness. We do not get to know the parents very well, nor any of the main characters. Through its whole duration, I did not learn one thing__not one thing__about Travolta's lawyer character, Jan Schlictmann, who doesn't appear to have any sort of life or purpose outside of his job. Every scene is tediously related directly to the premise, and therefore, there was no one for me to care about or root for. You've got to work pretty hard, actually, to not get an audience to become involved in the parents' plight, since their children are dead, but that is exactly what "A Civil Action" does.
To be honest, I would be fairly hard-pressed to state an aspect of the film that I actually liked. Aside from one flashback to when a man's young son died on the way to the doctor, I remained unmoved and passive about what was going on in the scenes, and more than once found my mind wandering. I could say the performances were good, but who's fooling who? Since every character is one-dimensionally written, no one's acting abilities are challenged in any way. Travolta plays a lawyer well enough, but that's about all he does. Duvall virtually sleepwalks through his role, apparently only appearing to give one-liners at every chance he gets. And what in the world is Kathy Bates doing in the picture's final scene, as a judge? She appears unbilled, since it is just a cameo, but why did she even agree to do it in the first place?
Finally, when the conclusion arrived and the end credits began to role, the film left me with another question: what was the point? Abruptly ending without any susceptible momentum, where none came before that to begin with, "A Civil Action" seemed to me, at least, to be an example of how not to make a courtroom drama, and it certainly did not do justice to the very serious subject matter the film deals with.
©1998 by Dustin Putman