"A Civil Action" comes close, achingly close, to greatness. Finely cast, classically shot, written and directed with sureness and skill and based on a book compelling enough to stay on bestseller lists for two years, it's a story told so confidently and well that it seems fated to succeed.
But as proficient a job as writer-director Steve Zaillian and his team do, "A Civil Action" has unmistakably unraveled by its close. It gets into difficulties all those combined skills can't overcome, upended both by the situation it wants to accurately portray and by a crucial casting decision. "A Civil Action" is good enough to perhaps have surmounted one of those difficulties, but both of them prove to be too much.
The book in question, written by Jonathan Harr, details a real-life legal battle in the 1980s that took eight years to play out and 500 pages to describe. It follows a liability lawsuit filed by eight blue-collar families from Woburn, Mass., just outside of Boston. Two large corporations, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, were charged with dumping chemicals that eventually poisoned the town's water supply, leading to the leukemia deaths of several children.
Taking on the case is the unlikeliest of white knights, Jan Schlichtmann, played by John Travolta. He's a personal injury lawyer, a breed, he himself admits via voice-over, that even other attorneys deride as "ambulance chasers, vultures, bottom feeders."
Successful and opportunistic, favoring red power ties and a fast black sports car, Schlichtmann prides himself on being pragmatic above all else. "A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as one who's alive," he dispassionately informs us, "and in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child's worth least of all."
All we need to know about Schlichtmann's modus operandi is shown in the film's exactly calibrated opening sequence, where a retreating camera reveals the lawyer carefully wheeling a disabled young man in a wheelchair--his client--down a long corridor and into court. Just the sight of this pair sends the opposing attorney into a sweat, which is just what Schlichtmann intended.
"The whole idea of lawsuits is to settle," his voice-over informs later in the film. "Trials are for fools."
Because of his calculation about the futility of litigating over dead children, Schlichtmann is wary of taking on the Woburn parents' case, even though his partner Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub) favors the idea. Two things win him over: the persistence of parent Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) and his chance discovery that the suspected local polluters are owned by large corporations with very deep pockets.
Though Travolta, who hasn't made his reputation playing professional men, was something of an unconventional choice for the role, the actor is solid in these introductory sections. He plays Schlichtmann as slick and street smart with just a veneer of sophistication, an opportunist and an operator with his eye always on the main chance, a characterization that is well within his range.
His main legal opponent Jerome Facher, the attorney representing Beatrice, is ideally cast, with superb actor Robert Duvall playing a wily master of legal manipulation. Beautifully introduced in a lunchtime scene that underlines his lethal combination of folksiness and a killer instinct, Duvall's Facher is the smiler with the knife, a purposeful eccentric who believes "if you're going to knock a guy down, do it so he can't get up again."
Duvall's well-cast co-stars are equally effective. John Lithgow as the case's touchy, acerbic judge, Dan Hedaya as the obstreperous operator of a suspect tannery, James Gandolfini as an employee torn about what he knows, Quinlan as the determined mother, David Thornton as a father whose child has died, all do work that could not be improved on.
Zaillian, who wrote the Oscar-winning script for "Schindler's List" and previously directed the exemplary "Searching for Bobby Fischer," handles both tasks expertly. As a writer, he never puts so much as a word wrong; as a director, he has a sureness surprising in someone who's only done two films, and, helped by the great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (seven Oscar nominations, one victory), he displays a strong visual sense. More than that, he's able to give emotion its due and understands how to ground his characters in reality. So what possibly could have gone wrong?
Given that fitting all of a 500-page story into a two-hour-plus film isn't possible, "Civil Action" sensibly focuses on what the case does to Schlichtmann. It becomes, to put it mildly, an obsession for this previously uninvolved man, threatening to ruin his law firm financially and to take all his partners with him. (In the film's shrewd moments of comic relief, William H. Macy amusingly portrays the team's increasingly frantic financial advisor, James Gordon).