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Review by Matthew Leary (12/98)

Release: 1998, Buena Vista
Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan
Director: Steven Zaillian
MPAA Rating: [PG-13] language
Genre: Drama

Justice has its price...


Personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta) takes on two corporate giants on behalf of a small town whose water has been poisoned, resulting in the death of eight children. Based upon the novel by Jonathan Harr, which is turn in based upon a true story.


I particularly enjoyed Robert Duvall's role as a corporate attorney who knew when to separate his life from his work--it was a nice contrast to and a much needed breather from Travolta's Schlichtmann, who gets downright obsessive about the case. William H. Macy is good, as usual, and Tony Shalhoub (formerly Antonio on the NBC sitcom Wings) turns in yet another dramatic performance. Couple this with Big Night and the recent The Siege, and it's clear that he's a great actor with a wide range. John Lithgow's role as a judge reminds us that he's capable of serious roles, something we may have forgotten thanks to Third Rock from the Sun.


As much as I enjoyed the performances from the supporting cast, I was bothered by the two main characters at the heart of the case. There's something disturbing in the way Travolta's character is deified when he's really just an ambulance chaser. Yes, I realize he made a lot of personal sacrifices, and yes, I even realize that he was written as a flawed hero, so "deification" might be too strong a term. But there's something insincere in the way in which the movie portrays his sacrifices, and Travolta's portrayal doesn't really help matters. It's much like the problem in Primary Colors: he's playing a character that's supposed to be sympathetic, but just doesn't really come across as such.

The problem isn't helped much by the premise of lawyer vs. corporation either. I'm reminded of Danny DeVito's line in The Rainmaker, when he said that there's "nothing like nailing an insurance company." As if the profession of personal injury lawyer has more moral fiber than corporate juggernaut in the eyes of society...

Even though I was supposed to, I also couldn't embrace Kathleen Quinlan's role of a mother who wants nothing more than an apology for the death of her child. This is not to say she should have been out for money or blood, but to wipe her clean of any basic emotion (there's not a trace of vengeance on her) makes her too idealistic and, ultimately, unrealistic.

I realize this was based on a true story, so before anyone writes to me arguing that these characters were real, just let me remind you that it is the dramatization I am criticizing and have problems with. Other than this movie, I have no real knowledge of the actual case it was inspired by. But in real life, no corporation is 100% faceless evil, and A Civil Action does little justice to the legal system with a largely one-sided argument.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)

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