A Civil Action
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : John Travolta (Jan Schlichtmann), Robert Duvall (Jerome Facher), Tony Shalhoub (Kevin Conway), William H. Macy (James Gordon), Kathleen Quinlan (Anne Anderson), Zeljko Ivanek (Bill Crowley), James Gandolfini (Al Love), Bruce Norris (William Cheeseman), John Lithgow (Judge Skinner)
The name of the lawyer-protagonist at the heart of Steve Zaillian's true-life legal saga "A Civil Action" is named Jan Schlichtmann, and the first several times we hear it spoken, it seems almost purposely mispronounced to sound like "Slick Man." If Schlichtmann weren't a real person, I would attribute his name to a bad in-joke because it fits his character too perfectly. As played with charisma and smug confidence by John Travolta, Schlichtmann is a slick man: a rich, suave, black-Porsche-driving personal injury lawyer who is good--maybe too good--at what he does.
"A Civil Action" is based on a true story, an actual lawsuit that took up eight years of Schlichtmann's life and drained him of every dime and every possession he owned. In the film, the lawsuit is seen as a kind of humanizing, transformative event, where he is forced to confront not only himself and what he stands for as a human being, but everything about his profession and the justice system as a whole. He goes from thinking of his cases in terms of dollar signs into considering the larger issues, the human lives that are at stake when he steps into a courtroom.
The case began in the early 1980s and didn't end until 1989 when Schlichtmann, depleted of funds and spirit, turned it over to the Environmental Protection Agency. It involved eight families from East Woburn, a small town in Massachusetts. All of these families had their young children die suddenly of leukemia, and they suspected it had something to do with the discovery of pollution by industrial solvents in two drinking water wells. Zaillian emphasizes what a scary notion this is--that water can kill you--by repeatedly focusing on the proliferation of water in our lives; every time a character has a glass of water, Zaillian's camera makes it the point of interest. He thus stresses the atrocity of turning water into something toxic because water is so basic, so fundamental to our existence.
When first offered the case, Schlichtmann doesn't want to take it because it's too much of a risk. Because his small firm foots all the bills and earns its money from the settlements, he judges cases by dollars and cents; and, in his way of thinking, this one is a sure loser. In the opening scene of the film, we hear him in a voice-over explaining which injuries and deaths are worth the most money in a settlement. Coolly and rationally, he notes that dead children are worth the least, while white males in their 40s at the peak of their earning potential are the worth the most. Dspite this, Schlichtmann changes his mind and enthusiastically takes the Woburn case when he realizes who the defendants will be: Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace & Co., two huge conglomerates with the kind of "deep pockets" that will make it worth his effort.
From the start, "A Civil Action" is deeply cynical about the state of the American justice system. Even as Schlichtmann and his three partners dive headlong into the case, eventually selling off all their assets and mortgaging their houses to pay the bills, the film creates the impenetrable feeling that it is all for naught. Faced by teams of cold-blooded corporate lawyers with endless amounts of cash and resources--best personified in Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), the eccentric but brilliant defense lawyer for Beatrice Foods--the task seems not only daunting, but pointless.
Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the mother who gets the families organized, says she only wants an apology, but what she doesn't realize is that, in the twisted world of civil lawsuits, that is the one thing she can never get. To get an apology means the companies will have to admit guilt, and that is something they will never do. They may pay out a huge settlement, which only means that the money they part with is worth less to them than the time and hassle it would take to defend themselves in court.
"Justice?" Facher says at one point. "I thought we were talking about a court of law." It is here the film is the most biting, suggesting that "justice" and "law" are nowhere close to one in the same. Facher tells Schlichtmann to stop looking for truth in a courtroom, and start looking for it where it really resides: "at the bottom of a bottomless pit." The point of a civil action is to settle, not to unearth truths and extract justice. Therefore, the ultimate irony of the title is that civil lawsuits of the type depicted here are the ultimate example of civility masking callousness that borders on the inhuman. Well-groomed, educated men in button-down shirts and three-piece suits enter a beautiful courtroom and, within the well-established rules and customs, proceed to make civilized arguments about how much money a human life is worth. So civil, yet so sick at the same time.
Zaillian put together a stellar cast for the film, which also includes William H. Macy as Schlichtmann's increasingly uptight financial manager and the always reliable Dan Hedaya as the owner of a polluting cannery whose sense of family pride and willful stubbornness makes him both the strongest and the most perverse character in the movie. However, Zaillian never quite manages to bring the film to the emotional level he's striving for. Zaillian has worked in this kind of true-life material before, writing the screenplay for "Schindler's List" (1993) and writing and directing "Searching For Bobby Fischer" (1993), a story about a child chess genius that was one of the best films of that year.
With "A Civil Action," all the pieces are in place, but they don't quite add up. It is certainly an engaging film for most of its running time, and it thankfully dispenses with most of the usual John Grishman-style legal thriller clichés--no surprise witnesses, explosive courtroom antics, or sudden discoveries of evidence in the fourth quarter. In fact, the courtroom scenes are decidedly short and to-the-point. Most of the trial is depicted in one montage, where Zaillian cleverly intercuts the trial proceedings with scenes of Duvall's character giving a lecture in his Harvard law class, and everything he teaches relates to what is going on in the courtroom.
Part of the film's problem may be in Travolta, who is never entirely convincing, and this works against a film that is trying to make the transformation of his character into its centerpiece. At one point, Schlichtmann makes an earnest apology to Anne for not succeeding in the trial, and the look on Travolta's face never convinces us that he's truly serious, when he should be. Travolta has some good moments, but he plays the smug, arrogant Schlichtmann much better than the soulful, pained Schlichtmann. At one point, Duvall's character tells him that his suit fits him better than his sentimentality, and he could have just as well been speaking about Travolta the actor instead of his character.
©1999 James Kendrick