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Wednesday, January 13, 1999

A Civil Action

Posted By on Wed, Jan 13, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Even though A Civil Action is based on a real-life, environmental civil lawsuit, it just proves something that John Grisham knows all too well: In contemporary legal thrillers, it’s not the case that matters, but the lawyer.

A Civil Action follows Ghosts of Mississippi (1996) as an example of how the attorney becomes the story instead of the real struggle. In Ghosts, the murder of Medgar Evers becomes a way to sanctify Alec Baldwin’s assistant district attorney, a good ol’ boy who sticks his white neck on the line to successfully prosecute a repellent racist.

In A Civil Action, that tarnished saint role goes to John Travolta’s bottom-feeding personal injury lawyer, who loses it all and becomes an environmental crusader. (That William H. Macy appears in both films in scene-stealing roles as gruff, but loyal support men shows both his talent and the apparent lack of roles that can fully take advantage of it.)

Although the case itself — which should be at the heart of this true story based on Jonathan Harr’s best seller — is secondary to the transformation of Travolta’s Jan Schlichtmann, writer-director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) still tries to milk it by using the same technique his crusading lawyer employs: Promise the audience human drama on a grand scale, and they’ll hand over the money.

The case that the real Jan Schlichtmann and his law partners filled against two American conglomerates (W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods) was on behalf of the families of eight children who died of leukemia in Woburn, MA. These families believe that the cancer was caused by chemicals from a local tannery contaminating the drinking water.

But trying to understand the events of Woburn in Zaillian’s film is a study in frustration. He takes too many narrative short-cuts and barely acknowledges the identities or relevance of the numerous supporting characters — Robert Duvall, stealing Travoltathunder at every turn as Beatrice’s seemingly distracted but wily attorney, is the sole exception. Even the time Zaillian spends with the residents of Woburn seems perfunctory, as if their only purpose was to provide the raw material for the all-important court battle.

This leads to the inevitable: Everything is filtered through the sensibility of John Travolta’s whore with a heart of gold. This is the kind of movie where every time Travolta makes a declaration in voiceover — like an attorney should never actually feel his client’s pain — the audience is sure that he’s just about to flagrantly break his own rule.

A Civil Action is ultimately not about industrial pollution, human suffering or even greed, but the reckless ego of one lawyer who needs desperately to be knocked off his pedestal.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at


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