"Justice is a game," says Bob Dylan in his hit song Hurricane.
That sentiment is borne out in this new legal drama from Oscar winning
writer Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, etc). Zaillian steps behind
the camera for the first time since 1993's Searching For Bobby Fischer
to direct this fact based drama that criticises the much vaunted
American legal system, where justice comes at a huge price, and the
only winners are the lawyers.
A Civil Action is based on a true story about a complex
environmental court case in the 1980's that eventually took eight
years to resolve. The water supply of the town of Woburn,
Massachusetts, has been polluted and poisoned, resulting in a
disproportionately high rate of deaths from leukemia. However, the
grieving families have found little help in their attempts to seek
legal redress and damages from the factory and tannery they believe
The case is known in legal terms as "an orphan." With no high
profile defendant to try and little likelihood of gaining a huge
compensation pay-out, no law firm has bothered to take on the case.
The plaintiffs have been shunted from one reluctant law firm to
another, until they finally end up with the small firm run by Jan
Schlichtmann (John Travolta). A personal injury lawyer has earned a
lucrative living from exploiting the pain and suffering and misery of
accident victims, Schlichtmann is initially reluctant to tackle the
case. Then he discovers a link to two of the nation's largest
corporations, and the battle lines are drawn.
The case becomes something of a David and Goliath-like
struggle as Schlichtmann's small firm takes on a battery of high
priced, slick lawyers well versed in delaying tactics and every dirty
legal trick in the statute books. However, Schlichtmann's pride and
determination to reveal the truth and gain what he believes is an
adequate settlement takes his firm to bankruptcy and destroys
everything that he had worked for.
A Civil Action is not your typical John Grisham-like legal
thriller. There are no courtroom pyrotechnics here, no explosive
revelations, or dramatic confrontations; not even an idealistic young
lawyer tackling a difficult case on principle. Rather this is a study
of how the epic case affected the lives of all who were involved. A
Civil Action is a provocative, cynical and engrossing examination of
the flawed legal system in America. Its outcome will leave audiences
dismayed at the patent injustices inherent in a system that can be so
easily manipulated by the powerful and the wealthy. Zaillian's
intelligent and sympathetic direction is perfectly suited to the
material, and he avoids becoming too bogged down in legal detail.
Zaillian has assembled a top notch ensemble cast, who deliver
solid performances that bring the flawed characters to life. Travolta
is impressive as the tenacious, driven Schlichtmann, who is willing to
risk everything. He delivers his best performance since Get Shorty.
The very busy William H Macy (Boogie Nights, etc) is excellent as
Schlichtmann's beleaguered accountant, whose desperate attempts to
stave off bankruptcy bring a measure of humour to the film.
But stealing the acting honours is veteran Robert Duvall, who
delivers a marvellous performance as Facher, one of the opposing
attorneys. Duvall beautifully plays him as a Columbo-like character,
whose down trodden demeanour, distracted manner and idiosyncrasies
hide a steel trap mind and a thorough working knowledge of the
intricacies of the law.
Kathleen Quinlan, Tony Shalhoub, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya,
Stephen Fry, John Lithgow, and an uncredited Kathy Bates round out the
impressive cast. Robert Redford, well known for his environmental
concerns, is one of the producers.
Copyright © 2000 Greg King