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Overall Rating

Awesome: 10.77%
Worth A Look33.85%
Average: 32.31%
Pretty Bad: 20%
Total Crap: 3.08%

5 reviews, 35 user ratings

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Civil Action, A
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Passable but inert legal drama."
3 stars

In its omnivorous quest to buy the rights to every story that could possibly be turned into a movie, Hollywood often forgets to question whether said story should be a movie. Some material, it so happens, works best on the stage or the page -- or even on the tube. But Hollywood is in the moviemaking business, so it naturally assumes the noblest form of entertainment is the major motion picture.

A Civil Action -- a courtroom drama that tries hard not to be one -- is well-cast, well-acted (sometimes brilliantly acted), and tastefully handled by writer-director Steven Zaillian. So why can't I rise to it? Because the movie does nothing that television can't do; it's a high-powered TV movie. Adapting Jonathan Harr's nonfiction book, Zaillian conscientiously avoids all the clichés we associate with courtroom potboilers. The problem is, he hasn't found much to replace the clichés. Zaillian wants to make a complex film about law, but perhaps only a TV series, which has many hours to develop characters and moral dilemmas, can pull that off.

Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), when we first meet him, is a proudly cynical ambulance chaser. He knows exactly what he is, and he takes pleasure in being good at it. Then a case arises that challenges his complacency. In Woburn, Massachusetts, twelve children have died of leukemia. Their families, led by grieving mother Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), have been looking for a firm to represent them in a suit against two companies that dumped carcinogenic waste (which seeped into the water). Schlichtmann dismisses the case until he learns that the two companies, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, have deep pockets. He takes the case, and gradually gets personally involved, spending money on the prosecution to the point where his small firm is in danger of going under.

Schlichtmann is a grandstander; he makes a big show of doing everything he can to win, and I began to wonder whether this story shouldn't have been about an obsessive lawyer who sinks his own firm and is damn lucky the EPA is around to go after the polluters when he falters. With the engaging John Travolta in the lead, the movie becomes one more David-and-Goliath morality play -- didn't we just see this in the much more entertaining The Rainmaker? -- instead of what could have been an acerbic Don Quixote tale, with Schlichtmann tilting at the windmill of his own legal-eagle pride. We've even seen the lawyer-and-dead-children story before, in The Sweet Hereafter, a work with more depth than ten movies like this one.

I called A Civil Action a high-powered TV drama, and it is high-powered; the cast is impeccable across the board, particularly William H. Macy as Schlichtmann's frazzled accountant, John Lithgow as an imperious, bemused judge (pitted against Travolta again, 17 years after Blow Out), and a surprise cameo at the end by a recent Travolta co-star. And when Robert Duvall is on the screen, all is forgiven. He plays Jerome Facher, veteran attorney for Beatrice Foods, a great man who takes the measure of everyone he meets and quietly masters them. Some critics are calling the movie complex, but I think Duvall's performance is what they mean; his Jerome Facher defends a polluting corporation, yet we like the bastard, because he, too, knows exactly what he is, and accepts it, even enjoys it -- enjoys the power, the process, the head games. On a TV series, he might be a major character; here, he's a supporting player in a few punchy scenes.

Duvall makes those scenes count, and that's what you take with you, chuckling as you recall his sly bits of business. Meanwhile, of course, your thoughts of the twelve dead children fade away.

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originally posted: 01/27/07 08:34:00
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User Comments

3/02/21 morris campbell decent 3 stars
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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