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A Civil Action

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All-Reviews.com 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 Greg King
3 stars out of 4

"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 are responsible.

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

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