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A Civil Action

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 15 January 1999

  Directed by Steven Zallian.

Starring John Travolta, Kathleen Quinlan,
James Gandolfini, William H. Macy,
John Lithgow and Robert Duvall.

Screenplay by Steven Zallian,
based on the book by Jonathan Herr.

There's an extraordinary moment in A Civil Action, Steven Zallian's film of the Jonathan Herr book, when its main character, Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), visualizes a story just told him by a father who tried to resuscitate his young son. Jan pictures the man's mute anguish, but it is not the father's depthless grief that most touches him: he's affected by the image of the man as a figure who's troubled, conscience stricken, alone, how it sets him above and apart from everyone else.

Jan, who is the head of a small, but successful, Boston law firm that specializes in personal injury cases, handles himself in a very confident, even imperious manner. He travels to the upstate Massachusetts town of Woburn to politely address the citizens who have asked him to look into the possible mishandling of toxic chemicals by a local plant which may have caused the deaths of several of their children. By chance, Jan happens to find out that litigation on the case would involve suing two major companies, and the circumstances could enable him to ask for whatever large monetary settlement he could want, which he would share with the plaintiffs. Jan did not get his beautifully cut suits and fast automobile for nothing.

This isn't the first time that impudent emotions such as vanity and greed have been shown to be the motivating factors towards good, but this picture makes effective use of such a depiction. Travolta portrays Jan as someone who moves and speaks with great efficacy and poised skill. When someone tries to crudely provoke him, he re-sets his composure and doesn't take the bait, and then turns-around and uses the incident towards his own purposes. It turns out that the companies being sued did act in a venal manner, and the citizens of Woburn, who have a perfectly good case, chose a lawyer who could very well win it for them, even if he's not entirely operating out of lofty ideals. Jan increasingly throws most of his law office's resources into the case, producing evidence -- testings, expert testimony, the works -- that will irrefutably prove his point, then asks for a huge settlement that he figures the companies will be shamed into paying.

One of the two defense attorneys turns out to be a veteran lawyer and law teacher, Jerome Facher, who is played by Robert Duvall in the sly, crusty manner we have seen him use in films for years. Yet Duvall manages to squeeze just a bit more juice out of that particular manner. Facher sits back, observes, acts like he may even be a little out-of-it at times such, as when the suits all sit down on opposite sides of a table to first discuss the case. Facher is a creature of habit, is an inveterate Red Sox fan, and carries a ridiculous, battered-up briefcase around with him. After seeing him Scotch-tape the thing's handle back together, Jan asks him why he doesn't just buy a new one, to which Facher cryptically replies that one doesn't change socks in the middle of the World Series. Of course, Facher knows exactly what he's doing, and while Jan busies himself with presentation, Facher quietly out-maneuvers him in such a way as to critically undermine Jan's prosecution, while meeting the ultimate end of saving his clients big money. Observing Jan all the while, he figures out his opponent's most demoralizing weakness. In one scene, Facher is seen proposing an out-of-court settlement, sizable but not quite what Jan is asking for, in such a way as to test what Jan's response will be. The results, while superficially laudable, confirm what Facher's suspected all along. Facher has pricked Jan's ignity, and Jan falters. Or, as Facher tells his law students, "There's no place for pride in the courtroom." One has to, of course, be a bit of an egotist to want to go before the bar, but what Facher means is that you have to be pre-possessed enough not to let personal feelings interfere. Calculation can be all.

Zallian's film, which has been supremely well photographed by the great cinematographer Conrad Hall, tells its story -- an actual incident, as reported in Herr's book, that took place around the beginning of the 1990s -- with the aid of several fine performances, including the quietly magnificent Kathleen Quinlan, James Gandolfini as a worker who comes forward to help Jan, and William H. Macy, whose character gradually incinerates himself while trying to keep Jan's law office financially solvent. Zallian also presents the story in anything but the usual procession of talking heads perambulating around a courtroom set. He cuts back and forth between seemingly unrelated sequences to highlight, in sometimes surprising and deft ways, points in the unfolding events, creating nuanced levels of meaning without confusing the facts, skimping on characterization or undercutting the points-of-view of the opposing parties, or resorting to bald, obvious depictions. He also makes the story a fairly exciting investigative mystery, as well as a character study.

Jan ends up risking everything -- his success, his practice, his partnership, even the essence of his livelihood -- to try and produce the results he wants, or that he thinks the town of Woburn wants. It's not just that he wants to win, but that he also does not want to disappoint – that he's incapable of doing what he sets out to do -- and Travolta gives him a sense of dignity and bearing even during the lowest moments, when most people would have allowed the outcome of events to completely outstrip them.

Big business victimizing innocent people. The heartlessness of the legal system. Lawyers using it for their own self-serving ends. What this film really turns out to be about is the mystery, the unknowability behind what causes some people to do good. Everyone likes everything to be easily explained, most of the time. Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker because she's a mean old woman; "Rosebud" is a sled. Jan isn't even given the satisfaction of personally besting the opposition by the film's end: his work paves the way for someone else to finally do that. When he is asked why he went to such ridiculous, even irrational extremes to pursue a case that proved ruinous, Travolta's character -- in what will probably come to be regarded as one of the great acting moments of his career -- cannot come up with an answer. Yet his reaction tells us everything we need to know. Sometimes, we never know exactly what compels some people to act decently.

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