A Civil Action


So few films these days have real meat on their bones that, maybe out of desperation, we tend to overpraise those that do. A Civil Action is the true story of attorney Jan Schlichtmann, a Boston personal-injury specialist and the rainmaker for his 3-attorney firm, who's asked to take on the case of eight families in the small suburb of Woburn, who for some reason have all lost children to leukemia. This cluster of cases seems related to bad-smelling-and-tasting water from two municipal wells, located near possible polluting sites, and Schlichtmann, no do-gooder, has little interest in representing them.

But when he finds that the owners of the polluting properties are multinational giants W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, he senses a big payoff and takes the case. The film tells the story of the case from hearings and depositions through the trial and its aftermath.

It's also a study of the perils of hubris, as Schlichtmann violates some of the first rules of legal representation through overconfidence and underestimating the abilities of his opponents, and pays a heavy penalty -- along with his clients -- for having done so. It's a powerful and fascinating story, and the film, surprisingly for having come from a major studio (Disney), is unafraid to name corporate names. More than that, it acknowledges the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the story, and makes sure to share them with us.

But as a film, there are some interesting problems and weaknesses. One is at the very core of the movie and that is the casting of John Travolta as Schlichtmann. We've seen, over the past few years of Travolta's reborn career, that he is a most thoughtful and versatile actor. But one thing he doesn't do any more, if he ever did, is exude true sophisticated charm. We're told that Robert Redford originally bought the book but ultimately decided he was too old to play Schlichtmann. Maybe. But Redford's sexy and understated manner might well have carried this film better than Travolta's straight-ahead bulldog does. Steven Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay and directed, has obviously tried to give Travolta enough gimmicky tricks and tics to seduce us into accepting him as snake turned avenging dragon -- driving a hot Porsche, feigning unconcern at the costs of pursuing the case, renting a suite at the Plaza from which to negotiate a settlement -- but somehow they don't add up to the personality of a human being.

There's more than enough drama in the film's two hours to make it compelling -- the families' loss of their children, the stonewalling of the two corporations, the play of the trial (with a fine performance against character by Robert Duvall as the Beatrice Corp. lawyer who outsmarts Travolta), the slide into bankruptcy of Schlichtmann's firm as he maniacally pursues total vindication at the cost of ruining himself and his partners, and the ultimate resolution of the case.

But this is a part that Travolta was not born to play, and although we admire him for trying, we wish that wiser heads had prevailed at the time of casting. No doubt his popularity was crucial to financing the film, and certainly he doesn't destroy its impact, but it's a film that cried out for a Redford instead.