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A Civil Action (1998)

  Directed by: Steve Zaillian
Written by: Jonathan Harr, Steve Zaillian
Starring: Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, John Travolta
Links: A Civil Action on the IMDb, Buy on Video, Buy on DVD, Buy the Soundtrack, Buy the Book
Genre: Drama

This movie gets: 6.00 (1 rating) Ranking: not yet ranked (awaiting 2 ratings)

"Shut up and drink your trichloroethylene!" - a review by mino

I don't know what it is, but of late I've seen quite a few ‘courtroom dramas’. It's not really a genre that I'm particularly fond of, but as I said about A Time To Kill (1996), it's really quite hard to balls one of these up. I'm not exactly running down the video shop begging for the latest movie adaptation of a John Grisham novel, mind, but for some reason when I'm just pootling around looking for something unchallenging and easy-to-watch, one of these babies seems like a pretty good idea.

A Civil Action is the story of Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta), a rather uppity young star trial lawyer who hears about a number of families in the small town of Woburn, Massachusetts, who have been cursed with an unusually large number of childhood leukemia cases. The family are convinced that a local tannery and machine shop are to blame, because of the rather festy state of the land they back onto — which seems to have been pumped full of all sorts of nasty goop, and is right near their town water supply.

At first, Schlictmann is wary of taking the case, as are (more importantly) his partners. Damages in such cases are somewhat difficult to prove, but responsibility is fiendishly so. However, eventually the firm relents, and takes on the massive trial. Unfortunately for them, everything doesn't exactly go smoothly — the opposition lawyers are terribly slippery, the judge hates their guts, and the cost of hiring expert witnesses and producing enormous volumes of evidence more than once threatens to bankrupt the firm — leaving them to plead for more overdrafts, offer their own houses as security, and even pawn personal heirlooms.

As with both A Time To Kill and Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), A Civil Action is a pleasant-enough-but-not-outstanding movie. Travolta's hit-and-miss acting is rather more hit than miss for once, and the supporting cast is very good indeed (notably Robert Duvall as a slightly daffy but razor-sharp and filled with rat-cunning opposing lawyer). What makes A Civil Action a little bit special, though, is that it is all true (well, with some dramatic embellishments, obviously). Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Harr (which I read fairly recently), the fact that the citizens of Woburn actually went through all this — as well as Schlictmann and his partners — adds a little bit of an edge to the story.

One of the great things about the book is that even though it presents the story from one side, it gives a rather intelligent and (fairly) balanced view of proceedings. Rather than glossing over the bits that don't portray people in a good light, it's quite even-handed, and Schlictmann isn't exactly shown to be a shining hero. He does good work, sure, but he variously comes across as petty, greedy, self-centred, vindictive, and otherwise flawed. Likewise, the ultimate outcome of the cases (spoiler alert!) isn't necessarily all sunshine-and-roses; in fact, it's ultimately rather unsatisfying for nearly all concerned. This isn't the normal state of affairs for a legal novel, and nor is it so for the movies based on them. The movie certainly tidies the book up a bit, and is a little bit more ‘Hollywood’ than the (presumably more faithful to real life) book was. That said, it still does a moderately good job of conveying the complexity of what went on.

I have to confess that (as is usually the case) I found the book of A Civil Action far superior to the movie. Although the book is a little dry in parts, it does an excellent job of getting you involved in the process and covers some fascinating points of case law, geology, hyrdodynamics and a whole bunch of other stuff in deliciously nerdy detail. The movie loses a lot of this, but good performances, a good story, and a rather more intelligent slant on things than a lot of similar movies makes for another passably entertaining legal drama.

mino gives this movie 6 out of 10.
Review created on Thu 25 Nov 2004

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