Film Analysis | Film Reviews

A Review of ‘A Civil Action’

1 Jan , 1999  

Written by Kiersten Conner-Sax | Posted by:

Based on the true story of families in Woburn, MA whose children died from polluted well water, 'A Civil Action' remains faithful to the story, but dilutes some of the drama.
So, I suppose I have to say something about "A Civil Action." There isn’t a whole lot to say. John Travolta stars in this competent (if surprisingly dry) courtroom drama that details the true story of Jan Schlichtmann, attorney to the oppressed. The oppressed are a group of families in Woburn, MA whose children died as a result of drinking polluted well water, as painstakingly chronicled in Jonathan Harr’s 1995 book of the same title.

Future students, take note: the plot of the movie remains remarkably faithful to that of the book, in spite of Harr’s attention to detail. Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) contacts Schlichtmann’s thriving medical malpractice firm about representing her, along with seven other Woburn families who have lost children to cancer. Although reluctant at first, the ambulance-chasing Schlichtmann signs on when he realizes that the defendants will include mega-conglomerates W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods. In spite of the difficulty of proving the case, mounting costs, and a hostile trial judge, he perserveres.

Unfortunately, the film is somewhat guilty of the same crimes as Beatrice and Grace–ignoring the families of Woburn. While writer/director Steven Zaillian is to be commended for not presenting a single closeup on the face of a dying child just as a heart rate monitor flatlines, he should have given us something. Instead, the filmmakers seem to think that when your child dies, you stop brushing your hair. As it is, Quinlan is underutilized, and we see only the briefest flashbacks to the dying moments of another child; the rest of the powerful story is described verbally, during a deposition.

Thus, much of the drama of Harr’s story is lost. However, Zaillian does an admirable job of condensing a confusing story that was short on narrative summary. In fact, certain details that were afforded entire paragraphs of prose are here depicted with a refreshing visual elegance. For example, Beatrice’s attorney Jerome Facher’s stinginess is displayed by showing the high-powered attorney eating a homemade peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch; I was happily surprised not to hear a character comment on it, and thus spell out the meaning for the audience. Similarly, Zaillian avoided the standard Hollywood schtick of adding a gratuitous love interest. During the filming of exterior scenes in Boston, I turned on the news one night to see a shot of Travolta dancing with a pretty young woman on the footbridge in the Common Gardens, and feared the worst. Thankfully, I was wrong, but Zaillian nonetheless hasn’t given Travolta a whole lot to work with. Like dramatic tension.

Therefore, while it’s implied that Schlichtmann will lose the case due to pride, Travolta’s character doesn’t seem proud. What Schlichtmann and Zaillian fail to realize is that you can be simultaneously proud and morally right. Both men suffer for the failure.

Why, then, did Travolta take the part? It’s clear why Robert Duvall, as Jerome Facher, took his. He portrays the expert litigator as one of the wiliest movie villians I’ve seen in some time. Travolta, however, is playing a part that’s one pseudo-standup routine away from the characters more typically played by Robin Williams: do-gooders who believe in people and buck the system. Here, we see Schlichtmann learn to care about more than the bottom line, but he didn’t seem like such an immoral guy to begin with.

In the end, Travolta’s not bad. Neither are Zeljko Ivanek, as one of Schlichtmann’s law partners, nor Tony Shalhoub, inexplicably cast (since his considerable talents are completely wasted) as Schlichtmann’s partner and friend Kevin Conway. William H. Macy provides some heart and comic relief as James Gordon, the firm’s financial officer, who goes to greater and greater lengths to keep the partners afloat.

"A Civil Action" isn’t a bad movie. Granted, the ABC series "The Practice" based a storyline on similar material last fall, and told it to better effect. Even so, if you’re looking for either a mildly entertaining Travolta vehicle or a primer on the Woburn case, head to your local theater.