Every December there emerges a film touted as a major award contender
only to come up short. Last year, it was Steven Spielberg's overrated
_Amistad_; this year, it's Steven Zaillian's _A_Civil_Action_, which,
like the former film, is a technically proficient but ultimately soulless
_A_Civil_Action_, based on Jonathan Harr's fact-based book, marks the
directorial debut of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Zaillian (who
also wrote and executive produced), and he displays an effectively
economical storytelling style. This is best exemplified in a sequence
where Boston personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta)
meets up with Albert Eustis (Sydney Pollack), a pompous executive with
the corporation of W.R. Grace & Co., and recounts the encounter to his
legal partners. Instead of showing the encounter and then Jan's account
of it, they unfold simultaneously through intercutting, with certain
behaviors and statements underscored by Jan's after-the-fact commentary.
Another example has Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall, a Golden Globe nominee
for his work here), attorney to the large Beatrice Foods corporation,
lecturing a class on trial procedure, and each of the bullet points he
makes are followed by concrete illustration in the courtroom.
The technical proficiency extends to Travolta, who hits the right
dramatic notes as Jan, a hotshot attorney who sees dollar signs in
representing a group of Woburn, Massachusetts parents in a complaint
against Grace and Beatrice. These eight families claim that the two
corporations contaminated the town's drinking water, which led to their
children's deaths from leukemia. But somewhere along the way, Jan
becomes emotionally involved, making his own dollar signs disappear as
the impossible case drains his firm's funds but not the energy of his
crusade. The problem is that I never got a true sense of that change.
The turning point is supposed to be a scene where Jan is driven to tears
while thinking about one of the father's stories, but I did not sense any
change following that scene; Jan still seemed like the slickster that he
was, and his fierce determination to see the case through still seemed
motivated by money and not sentiment.
That can be blamed less on Travolta and more on Zaillian, whose film,
like the portrayal of Jan, is slick and collected but lacking an
emotional hook. Zaillian seems more interested in getting factual
details right than building any real dramatic tension or momentum, and
the film never quite reaches takeoff speed, despite the solid work of the
acting ensemble (especially William H. Macy as the accountant of Jan's
firm). The film's conclusion would be anticlimactic with or without any
dramatic urgency leading up to it, but without, it's not only flat, it's
a big fizzle.
Perhaps if Zaillian had been less civil and took more action with his
material, _A_Civil_Action_ could have lived up to the award-craving hype.
But, as it stands, this TV movie with a big screen cast looks to be an
also-ran when the Oscar nominations are announced in February.