Sunday, June 13, 2004

Movie Review: A Civil Action

United States, 1998
U.S. Release Date: 12/25/98 (limited), 1/8/99 (wide)
Running Time: 1:52
Rated: PG-13 (Profanity, mature themes)
Cast: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, Zeljko Ivanek, James Gandolfini, Bruce Norris, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Stephen Fry, Dan Hedaya

Director: Steven Zaillian
Producers: Scott Rudin, Rachel Pfeffer, Robert Redford
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian based on the book by Jonathan Harr
Music: Danny Elfman
Studio: Touchstone Pictures

Posted by Hello
How many of John Grisham’s fictional legal novels have been adapted to the silver screen and lost their luster in the process? --Nearly all of them (i.e. The Firm, Runaway Jury, etc). Only in rare cases do movies go out of their way to outweigh or even match the effects and intentions of their textual basis. This transitional book-to-film loss is especially typical in storylines found under courtroom settings. However, A Civil Action, based on a true story and adapted from Jonathan Harr’s book of the same title, is not your average Grisham law novel turned screenplay, where the dramatic courtroom twists and turns, through testimony and legal actions, seem overly melodramatic, and where predictable triumphant revelations always abound; instead, it is an intelligent legal drama/thriller with a great overall cast that does not disappoint.

John Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, a personal injury lawyer and one of Boston’s ten most eligible bachelors. Jan ends up taking an “orphan case” (a case that has been passed around from firm to firm), which deals with the deaths of eight children—all due to several carelessly disposed of chemicals found in the local drinking water. It is not until Jan realizes the substantial financial gain, when he signs on and begins working in collaboration with his entire five-man firm. In an effort to win the biggest case of his career, against two very wealthy companies, and in an attempt to not lose everything, he must succeed and win his civil action suit—making a storyline and plot that is strikingly similar to the more recent Erin Brockovich.

This film’s all-star-esque cast assists in the overall impact of the film tremendously. Despite Travolta being a big name and a big-time actor, his lead role as Jan, who seems to wear the same three-piece suit, red tie, and black overcoat in every scene, is not very powerful or convincing. Then again, he does portray a lawyer; so maybe he is just skillfully fitting the stereotype. However, I believe that the once Danny Zucko, was in fact a miscast. Luckily Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quintar, and James Gandophini all make up for where Travolta lacks.

A Civil Action takes a great deal of time with the validity of the true story’s trials and tribulations. Throughout the film we acquire statistics on personal injury law suits, tidbits of knowledge on why most cases end in settlements and not verdicts, and even information on the chemical process of how to waterproof leather. The picture takes the time to intrigue us with intellectual matters concerning both science and public policy. The good thing about this film is that it doesn’t spoil itself by relying on inane action to keep it afloat; instead it focuses on the sciences and laws at hand, and surprisingly still manages to sustain the audiences’ interest.

There is no question that A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich both have parallel true stories and both address similar situations. But, if given a choice, I prefer the female counterpart film--to see not only a beautiful woman in her Oscar-winning role, but also a hands-down better picture. Nonetheless, A Civil Action is on the higher end of those in its class, and I would not object to recommending it as a book-to-film legal drama that will not hold any viewer in contempt. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004