A Civil Action
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Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for adapting Schindler's List and directed Searching for Bobby Fischer, boils Harr's 502-page book into a complete, satisfactory film experience. Book readers will no doubt jeer the streamlining Zaillian had to perform to make the movie flow. Most changes can be quickly defused with the exception of the film's portrait of Schlichtmann. The lawyer has been turned into a movie star, an ultra-slick, cold-hearted gentleman who finds his purpose in working the case. Casting a stalwart John Travolta again diverges from the book, which right from the opening pages showed us a Schlichtmann with feet of clay. As Schlichtmann's partners (including William H. Macy and Tony Shalhoub) descend into the case, the unbridled sense of power and money is abandoned. This case is ultimately about survival.
Zaillian provides an excellent narrative for the sordid facts of personal injury suits, in which money is the only reward for lost or broken lives (deftly introduced in the film's opening scene). Zaillian also stays away from dwelling on the illness of the children involved, focusing on the gaunt faces of the parents who survive (Kathleen Quinlan, James Gandolfini) in controlled anguish. His evil characters--an industrial plant's owner (Dan Hedaya) and a corporate lawyer (another fine acting spin by director Sydney Pollack)--are so human it's terrifying. Zaillian's final ace in the hole is Oscar-nominee Robert Duvall. Perfectly cast as Travolta's opposition, Jerome Facher, Duvall steals scenes with the abbreviated dialogue; he turns a fancy settlement meeting into a farce with one line. Facher is not a callous, love-to-hate-him lawyer like James Mason in The Verdict. Facher represents the law at its brilliant foundation: to best represent one's client. With a taped-together briefcase and dry humor, Facher, not Schlichtmann, is the character who captures us by the film's end. --Doug Thomas
Top Customer Reviews
Yes, this case really did exist. Yes, there really was (and still is) a lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann (as portrayed by Travolta), who really did pursue this case against two large corporations, Beatrice and W.R. Grace (both named in the movie), who really did illegally dump pollutants in a neighborhood somewhere in Massachusetts, and which really did cause the deaths of 12 children from leukemia. Yes, Mr. Schlichtmann really DID comment cynically when he was first presented with the case, "I really don't see the value in a bunch of dead babies." There really was a corporate defense attorney named Jerome Facher (as portrayed by Duvall) who played this case as if constantly hedging his bets at a Vegas casino poker table. And so on...you get the idea.
This film is brutally honest, names names, pulls no punches...and forgoes the typical, traditional Hollywood-style happy ending for one that is completely real, unfabricated, and ultimately satisfying in the realization that, it too, is real. That doesn't mean that it is emotionally unsatisfying. After all, after investing nearly two hours with this case, and these characters, about which we grow to care completely (especially because we know they're real), this film does provide the payoff in the end. I just won't tell you which one; you have to see this brilliant film in order to find out.
This film proves, for once and for all, that the truth really is stranger than fiction!
Schlichtmann uncovers the culprits, a chemical company, WR Grace and Beatrice Foods, who provide services for a tanning company owned by Riley. With that, he files a lawsuit, the legal equivalent to a declaration of war, and hires a geological team to provide scientific evidence should it come to trial.
Jan then does a couple things that leads to his downfall. One, he gets personally involved. In a news broadcast, he holds up snaps of the Woburn kids who have died. He shows empathy, which is a grave disservice to the legal profession because it clouds his judgment. He says it's like a doctor recoiling at the sight of blood. That leads to his demanding of WR Grace and Beatrice Foods a multi-million dollar settlement, including money for a research foundation, to cover expenses, and to provide for the families for thirty years, which the corporations refuse, which in turn takes the case to trial. He does this without consulting his partners, which doesn't bode well. James Gordon, the accountant, points out that they need to work on other cases to provide a cash flow.Read more ›
If you like courtroom dramas, this is highly recommended. It's one of the best specimens of the genre to come out of America since `The Verdict'. It's interesting to compare it to `Erin Brockovich' released a couple of years later. EB is about how a heroic small timer takes on the big boys of corporate America and how her pluck and determination triumphs over all obstacles, something of a legal feelgood movie in other words. Which this, to its great credit, is not. Its central character, for starters, is far more amibivalently likeable: initially just out for a fast buck, moral seriousness has to creep up on him and take him by surprise (perhaps reminding writer/director Zaillian of Oskar Schindler whose story he scripted for Spielberg a few years earlier) and the story's development paints a significantly more ambivalent picture of what pluck and determination can accomplish. It's a highpoint of Travolta's acting career even if he is comprehensively upstaged by Robert Duvall, on brilliant form as his quietly cynical adversary, bigshot lawyer Jerome Facher who knows far better than to look for the truth in a courtroom...
Most Recent Customer Reviews
While this story is very compelling; having read the book and lived in and around Woburn, you quickly realize what they had to do to crunch as much as they could into a two hour... Read morePublished 14 days ago by Amazon Customer
Awesome movie. I had to warch it for my Public Health class and it was a very good movie. The two main characters Travolta and Duvall are amazing as usual.Published 20 days ago by Zsuzsa C. Lovasy
Classic. This is well written and acted and cast of actors is perfect. Albeit sad because of the human and ecological toll. Read morePublished 1 month ago by J. Cochrum
Seller did a great job..but it's not a movie you want to watch over and over.Published 1 month ago by heather derringer