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Overall Rating

Awesome: 10.94%
Worth A Look34.38%
Average: 31.25%
Pretty Bad: 20.31%
Total Crap: 3.13%

5 reviews, 34 user ratings

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Civil Action, A
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by Stephen Groenewegen

"Thoughtful legal drama loses sight of the main issue."
3 stars

The perils of telling a true story are aptly demonstrated in A Civil Action, the latest big-name Hollywood legal drama to reach Australian shores (29 April 1999).

Children in a small American town are disproportionately dying of leukemia. Their families blame a small tannery by the river, owned by a man with few environmental scruples, for polluting their drinking water. Enter John Travolta’s personal injuries lawyer, Jan Schlitmann – a man so obsessed with winning large payouts for his clients, he won’t touch the case until he’s
convinced the tannery has connections to some big businesses with big pockets. The families want an apology, and someone to take responsibility; Schlitmann wants to screw the companies for whatever they’ve got.

What’s unusual about A Civil Action is that it’s a court room drama that doesn’t completely sacrifice legal realism to tell the story. The irony of court room conflict making great drama is obvious to anyone who’s ever set foot in a court – trials are so
laden down with procedure that they’re rarely exciting. To his credit, director Zaillan (who wrote the screenplay to Schindler’s List and directed Searching for Bobby Fischer) is aware of this. He confines the histrionics to the out of court drama – the pre-court conferences and the disintegration of Schlitmann’s firm as it pours all its money into the case.

The title is a neat pun on the nature of the civil – as opposed to criminal – trial we usually see on film, and the court room niceties which mask the frequently destructive effects of cases on the parties involved. One of the companies pursued by Schlitmann’s team is represented by Robert Duvall, an Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor this year (and winner of the Screen Actors Guild prize). His is the sort of eccentric
lawyer with integrity we would normally root for, if he wasn’t so obviously playing for the baddies. Duvall gives the character humour and dignity, demonstrating that he’s wasted in schlock like Deep Impact.

Not only is Duvall a far more compelling screen presence than Travolta, but his character is also a more likeable and proficient lawyer. There are two stories here – the struggle for
justice and environmental responsibility on behalf of the families, and whether Travolta’s Greedy Lawyer will turn out to have a conscience after all. There’s no contest as far as
I’m concerned about which would make a better film, thanks mainly to Travolta’s competent, but unremarkable, performance as Schlitmann. Unfortunately, the court case wasn’t finalised until a later appeal in which Schlitmann wasn’t involved. By focusing on Schlitmann’s involvement, we really only get half a film and a dramatically unsatisfactory ending as the legal issues are resolved off-screen.

Still, it’s a thoughtful picture, with an interesting supporting cast. Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13) is virtually unrecognisable as one of the mothers; also featured is William H Macy (fresh from Psycho and Pleasantville), Kathy Bates in an uncredited cameo, and gay British humourist Stephen Fry (Wilde), cast very much against type as an engineer. Danny Elfman contributes a fine score reminiscent of his work on A Simple Plan, and for a film about sick children, there’s really only one painfully sentimental sequence. Zaillan can be applauded for having his heart in the right place and trying to make a legal film
with integrity.

But it’s not enough. With a stronger focus – or at least a more compelling central performance – it could have been so much better.

link directly to this review at
originally posted: 05/17/99 21:24:52
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User Comments

10/08/07 {RIP}_Deadman It was great... Jack how can u say that the acting lacks imagination. The acting was awsome 5 stars
11/21/06 latif ossor good movie 5 stars
10/18/04 juan I think that this was a very good movie. Filmink Magazine owes viewers an appology. 5 stars
5/23/03 Mr. Hat (I'm Back, Mo'Fos!) Yep, it was overrated. But, Travolta, Hedaya, & Macy were pretty good. 3 stars
3/03/03 Jack Sommersby Absolutely nothing new on display here. Even the acting's lacking in imagination. 2 stars
4/04/02 Francis good production values, but fails to sustain interest to the end 3 stars
7/07/01 Scott "David and Goliath," my *ss; arrogant attorney blowing a big case he should have settled. 5 stars
6/30/01 Damn What do I konw? 2 stars
6/10/01 Phil M. Afficianado Thought provoker/disturber like Erin B & Insider. Good work to do 11 yrs in 115 minutes 4 stars
9/29/00 Terrie Smith One of the better Travolta films; nice performance from Robert Duvall in a small role. 4 stars
5/02/00 Fishsticks Not sensationalised into a thriller- and its pretty good. 4 stars
11/28/99 mpls31 I REALLY Loved it! BEST THING EVER 5 stars
11/04/99 Ben Leostein Rating: *** (out of ****) Category: "Good" 4 stars
7/24/99 Jacques Strapp Movie about a lawyer who goes broke because he's stupid and egotistical. Lame. 2 stars
4/01/99 Ah Dooey Hey Derek, you're right. 4 stars
3/02/99 slimshady yawn..wake me when its over 1 stars
2/27/99 Lonnie Sandberg Bad ending they just wanted to get it done 2 stars
2/22/99 Jeff HOUN Disappointing, all information not passed on to viewers on test results taken on grounds 2 stars
2/18/99 Derek Truthful portrayal of civil litigation. Surprisingly successful adaptation of the book. 4 stars
2/18/99 Piz Very smart film but got boring and worse as it went 3 stars
1/26/99 Tony K. Thought-provoking and engrossing, despite Travolta's unconvincing delivery of his lines. 4 stars
1/25/99 jvt poor direction and it drags but it's a fine legal film overall 3 stars
1/25/99 Meepos. Quintessential disappointment. Expected better. 3 stars
1/24/99 Melissa Very overrated. Duvall, Macy and Travolta are good, just not a great film. 3 stars
1/19/99 grunter a courtroom drama about poisened drinking water? yeah, that'll rake in the bucks 1 stars
1/16/99 Scott Weber This movie is not very good. The story is okay, but it doesn't go anywhere. 2 stars
1/13/99 buddy Well acted, nicely written and directed. 5 stars
1/12/99 Mr Showbiz William H. Macy and Robert Duvall do their level best to enliven the proceedings, but John 3 stars
1/12/99 cynthia thought it would be better 3 stars
1/12/99 Gamma Not enough of Lithgow for me, his moments were good. Duvall == awesome. Ending was weak 4 stars
12/27/98 Kirgo Well done...subtle...great editing 4 stars
12/26/98 The Dude very cool - its kind of a drama, thriller 5 stars
8/28/98 Mister Whoopee Sloooooow. Directorial overkill. Disappointing. 2 stars
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  25-Dec-1998 (PG-13)


  29-Apr-1999 (PG)

Directed by
  Steven Zaillian

Written by
  Jonathan Harr

  John Travolta
  Robert Duvall
  James Gandolfini
  Dan Hedaya
  John Lithgow

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