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A Civil Action

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: A Civil Action

Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall
Director: Steven Zaillian
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: January 1999
Genres: Drama, Thriller

*Also starring: Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Peter Jacobson, Sydney Pollack, Zeljko Ivanek

Review by Walter Frith
2½ stars out of 4

Litigation and communication. The key to being a good lawyer and having a successful legal career. Those unsuccessful at it usually become politicians. What do you call a thousand lawyers chained to the bottom of the ocean? Generally, a good start. An old joke but usually it works just as well as "Take my wife, please!" Tom Cruise's character in 'A Few Good Men' said cases aren't won by the law, they're won by the lawyers and a court case is a sales pitch and in 1990's 'Reversal of Fortune', an observation is made that cases are usually won in the field and not in the court room.

It isn't often that a court room movie comes along where the ending isn't predictable. Left off of the American Film Institute's list last year of 400 films nominated as the best in the first century of film was Sidney Lumet's 1982 masterpiece 'The Verdict'. That film used silence to permeate the film with astounding brilliance. Director Steven Zaillian tries the same thing here and it is generally successful but at times muted.

'A Civil Action' stars John Travolta as a Massachusetts lawyer who, along with three partners, (William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek) takes on a civil case in the form of a class action suit led by a mother (Kathleen Quinlan) who wants answers to why some of the children in the small town where she lives, have died of leukemia. Twelve strange and unexplained deaths that all seem connected to the town's drinking water and where a tannery operates - dumping thousands of gallons of run off chemicals into the water. Quinlan says she doesn't want money, just an explanation of why the children died and for someone to apologize. The company hires a huge law firm whose lead counsel (Robert Duvall) is an attorney who's practiced law for 45 years and Duvall's character is one of the most interesting in the film. Not a great performance but one of sheer wisdom both in and out of character as Duvall gets many chances to upstage the people on screen that he's working with but he falls just short of doing so.

John Travolta's performance is somewhat contained. He doesn't find a lot of avenues to truly make his performance memorable but he does a good job at making us believe he's a lawyer and our hearts go out to him and and his partners when they make career decisions that bankrupt them, and nearly destroy their lives. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the film is the use of John Lithgow as the judge. Like so many other court room films, the judge is the least interesting character. The two performances that won me over the most in this flick were those of William H. Macy and James Gandolfini who plays a conscience stricken employee of the plant who wants to help the plaintiffs because he has many children of his own. One of the most memorable scenes in the film has no dialogue. It is a dinner scene where Gandolfini watches as his wife pours each member of the family a glass of water and he looks skeptical about its effects. Macy is wrenching as the rebellious lawyer wanting a quick fix and knowing when to cut his losses. Too bad no one listens to him.

Director Steven Zaillian ('Searching for Bobby Fischer') and the Oscar winning writer of 'Schindler's List', structures his film with his own screenplay based on the book by Jonathan Harr, in a credible and even manner while letting the story tower over any other aspect of the film and since it's based on a true story, Zaillian compliments the material even more by letting it think for the audience rather than the other way around and in a film like this it's more than a compliment to the public, it's a welcomed public service announcement in the form of a not so obvious morality play!

Copyright 2000 Walter Frith

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