Retro Film Review: A Civil Action (1998)

in #aaalast month


Hollywood has benefited a lot from Anglo-Saxon legal tradition that, unlike its Continental counterpart, provides some drama into what otherwise would look like utterly boring and prosaic process. In past decade, thanks to the adaptations of John Grisham's books, Hollywood courtroom dramas often included plenty of larger-than-life characters and situations, often at the expense of realism. Steve Zaillian, scriptwriter of Schindler's List, tried to remind the audience that courtroom dramas have some connection with the real events after all. In 1998 he based his film A Civil Action on Jonathan Harr's book describing true story.

The film's protagonist is Jan Schlichtman (played by John Travolta), trial lawyer specialised in damage claims who enjoys enormous success, fame and prestigious title of Boston's most desirable bachelor. One day Schilchtman is approached by two citizens of small Massachusetts town of Waburn who attribute large number of leukaemia cases to water supply with a strange taste. Schlichtman is unwilling to take their case until he realises that two powerful and rich corporations – "Grace" and "Beatrice Foods" – have their industrial plants nearby. He sees opportunity to earn huge amount of money and fame and files lawsuits against them, claiming that their industrial waste was carcinogenic and demanding gigantic compensations for his clients. "Beatrice Foods" responds by hiring Jerome Facher (played by Robert Duvall), eccentric but very experienced attorney who has a perfect and simple solution for these sorts of legal problems – instead of defending the company and refuting Schlichtman's claims he merely uses many clever tricks to delay the proceedings and increase its cost to the levels that would prove to be unbearable for Schlichtman and his clients. As times goes by, the strategy begins to work and Schlichtman is close to bankruptcy, now more determined to seek justice than any financial gain.

The value of A Civil Action is in its stark realism, so different from courtroom dramas where single righteous protagonist brings down corrupt system or TV shows where the complicated issues get resolved in 45 minutes. The case depicted in this film lasts for years, jury doesn't even get involved and, just like in real life, having moral arguments on your side is less likely to affect the outcome than having large financial resources at your disposal. This dark and depressing vision of American justice system is well-displayed in the first half of a film. In the second half Zaillian succumbs to melodrama and doesn't properly explain how his greedy and arrogant protagonist transforms into righteous crusader. Zaillian is much less effective as a director than writer – the film is slightly overlong and the ending is anti-cathartic. The cast is good, though – John Travolta is aided by small army of very capable character actors. However, despite its educational value, A Civil Action leaves impression of 60 million US$ being spent on what amounts to looks like an average TV film.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on February 28th 2005)

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