Jonathan Harr's nonfiction bestseller was a shot in the arm for those seeking more than last-minute heroics akin to a John Grisham thriller. Here was a labyrinthine case involving industrial pollution by two highly regarded corporations, contaminated drinking water, and the deaths of innocent children in New England, circa 1981. The case has hundreds of twists and takes our hero--a steady, respectable lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann--and turns his life into personal disaster. Instead of celebrating the law, the story is a maddening and rewarding look at the elusiveness of the courtroom case.
Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for adapting Schindler's List and directed Searching for Bobby Fischer, boils Harr's 502-page book into a complete, satisfactory film experience. Book readers will no doubt jeer the streamlining Zaillian had to perform to make the movie flow. Most changes can be quickly defused with the exception of the film's portrait of Schlichtmann. The lawyer has been turned into a movie star, an ultra-slick, cold-hearted gentleman who finds his purpose in working the case. Casting a stalwart John Travolta again diverges from the book, which right from the opening pages showed us a Schlichtmann with feet of clay. As Schlichtmann's partners (including William H. Macy and Tony Shalhoub) descend into the case, the unbridled sense of power and money is abandoned. This case is ultimately about survival.
Zaillian provides an excellent narrative for the sordid facts of personal injury suits, in which money is the only reward for lost or broken lives (deftly introduced in the film's opening scene). Zaillian also stays away from dwelling on the illness of the children involved, focusing on the gaunt faces of the parents who survive (Kathleen Quinlan, James Gandolfini) in controlled anguish. His evil characters--an industrial plant's owner (Dan Hedaya) and a corporate lawyer (another fine acting spin by director Sydney Pollack)--are so human it's terrifying. Zaillian's final ace in the hole is Oscar-nominee Robert Duvall. Perfectly cast as Travolta's opposition, Jerome Facher, Duvall steals scenes with the abbreviated dialogue; he turns a fancy settlement meeting into a farce with one line. Facher is not a callous, love-to-hate-him lawyer like James Mason in The Verdict. Facher represents the law at its brilliant foundation: to best represent one's client. With a taped-together briefcase and dry humor, Facher, not Schlichtmann, is the character who captures us by the film's end. --Doug Thomas
A Civil Action is rated PG-13 by the MPAA.