The great attorneys of our time -- Tom Cruise, Susan Sarandon, Tom Hanks -- must now make room in the firm for a new partner. John Travolta, who in past lives has been a disco king, a hip hit man, and a deep-fried presidential candidate, reinvents himself in A Civil Action as greedy personal-injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, who risks everything on one Byzantine monster of a case and emerges from the hell of it a better man. Unless you're a devoted lawyer-basher, it's a fascinating thing to watch. Travolta and director Steven Zaillian (who wrote the screenplay for 1993's Schindler's List) push all the right emotional buttons while revealing the grime and the majesty of the law.
If an ambulance chaser is to be redeemed by conscience, the movie's closing argument goes, he must first suffer. And we must suffer along with him. It is this bond of mutual agony that helps A Civil Action surpass the usual John Grisham-style pulp and thereby become something like a real moral tale. It will likely gain more weight in the public eye from the fact that it's all true, more or less, based on a real lawyer and a real case about toxic waste and leukemia in a New England mill town, previously combined in a bestseller by Jonathan Harr. It doesn't hurt, either, that virtually every performance here, large or small, is picture perfect.
Travolta's flawed hero is a cocksure go-getter who has put dozens of expensive suits in his closet and a black Porsche in the garage through the cold calculus of his specialty: "Divide dollars and cents neatly into human suffering" and of the results make a life both well furnished and more upright than your antagonists would like to believe. But Schlichtmann is an overreacher, it turns out: He pushes his tiny law firm into a hazardous lawsuit against two industrial giants, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace & Co., on behalf of eight families in tiny Woburn, Massachusetts, who believe the leukemia deaths of their children are the result of poisoned drinking water. Each of the two big companies has a stake in a local tannery that dumped carcinogenic solvents back in the '60s.
The case spins out of control. Financing the vast medical and geological research the case requires themselves, Schlichtmann and his beleaguered partners soon face ruin, and when all their houses are lost and the office furniture has been hauled away, one of them (played by Pleasantville's William H. Macy) teeters on the comic edge of madness. But Schlichtmann, who wants more than anything to be a big dog on the legal battleground, refuses to settle, refuses to compromise. But he is as much stirred by conscience as by hubris, and that is what gives A Civil Action its keen edge.
Luckily we get more to ponder than just his lonely fight: Schlichtmann's witnesses, and his adversaries, are some of the most vivid movie characters of the year. As the downtrodden mother of one of the dead children, Kathleen Quinlan is the portrait of good and right: Her Anne Anderson isn't interested in money, she wants only an apology for negligence -- from someone. The superb character actor James Gandolfini (Get Shorty) does a beautiful job as a tannery worker haunted by his knowledge of what went wrong at the plant, and Sydney Pollack does a nice turn as W.R. Grace's ultraslick, ultramanipulative negotiator Al Eustis: The scene in which he gently puts the screws to our hero in New York's Harvard Club is a little masterpiece of comic acting. As the bellowing judge in the case, John Lithgow paints rather broad strokes, but he has his moments.
Best of all we behold the great Robert Duvall as the eccentric slyboots who heads the high-powered legal team representing Beatrice. Duvall's Jerome Facher is a rumpled Boston Red Sox fanatic who carries his lunch in his battered briefcase, a man not above pocketing a hard roll or two from the hotel breakfast table. But underestimating him is usually fatal: It is this disarming master strategist who trips up the cocky Schlichtmann -- and who, for my money, provides the film's most pleasurable moments. Once a brilliant consigliere, always a brilliant consigliere.
Director Zaillian, who made his debut behind the camera with the underrated Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993), grasps both the absurdity and the gravity of Schlichtmann's quest. His courtroom, photographed by Academy Award winner Conrad L. Hall, is so darkly and ominously lit that you wonder if justice has any chance at all of seeping in. Zaillian virtually obsesses on shots of glistening water pitchers and water glasses, constantly reminding us of the origins of this huge moral tangle. And his screenplay, adapted from a rather unwieldy book, is Oscar-worthy -- every word carefully chosen, every joke and jibe and shock beautifully rendered. Witness the moment when Travolta, caught up in the moment, shoots the moon, extending his demands for multimillions in a breakfast meeting with the other side. His partners (Macy, Tony Shalhoub, Zeljko Ivanek) are dumbstruck, and their faces show just how far into madness they believe their colleague has sunk.
In summation, A Civil Action is not just another lawyer movie but rather one of the most striking dramas of the year -- salted with dark wit and buoyed by an authentic moral issue. Some may complain that the film gives its wronged plaintiffs short shrift while focusing on their lawyer, but that's a difficult complaint to sustain in this case: As Jane Bryant Quinn once pointed out, after all, lawyers are operators of the toll bridge that anyone in search of justice must pass. So be it, Counselor Travolta.
A Civil Action.
Directed and written by Steven Zaillian, from a book by Jonathan Harr. Starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, James Gandolfini, and Kathleen Quinlan.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.