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Not So 'Civil' Firm

[whitespace] Civil Action
David James

Get Sharky: John Travolta plays a predatory lawyer who becomes a champion of the undertrodden in 'A Civil Action.'

Travolta coasts through 'Action'

By Richard von Busack

STUDENTS OF POPULISM in the cinema should get a load of one scene in A Civil Action. It's the funniest scene in the movie, although its wit is blunted with flash-forwards. Our hero, Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), meets a rival lawyer in the Harvard Club in Manhattan. Schlichtmann admits that he has never set foot in the Harvard Club before, to which the rival replies, "What sort of Harvard man are you?" With that look of steely humility that's made his name, Travolta replies, "A Cornell man." A Civil Action invites us to identify with Schlichtmann because he went to Cornell instead of Harvard--in short, no elitist, he!

The film is based on a true story (told in Jonathan Harr's book of the same name), though who knows how much the story has been "shaped for a movie." (Using that caveat, a 2-by-4 could be described as a Douglas fir.) Schlichtmann is a partner in a Boston personal-injury firm who is solicited by the families of the victims of a cancer cluster in the small town of Woburn, Mass. The dumping of toxic waste into the town's water supply is suspected, although it is hard to prove, and the miscreants are very big corporations. Throughout the action, Schlichtmann evolves from selfish lawyer (his selfishness indicated, redundantly, by a toy rubber shark on his desk) to holy gambler who stakes both possessions and career on the outcome of the civil lawsuit against the polluters.

Steve Zaillian, the first-time director who previously scripted Schindler's List, is a devotee of the great-man theory of history. The clients are drab and gray, and so is Woburn, filmed in winter mud. The leader of the grieving parents is played by Kathleen Quinlan, who gives Travolta and the audience the same look mom gave you when you wouldn't finish your spinach. The story, however, isn't about them, it's about the redemption of a lawyer. The main flaw in A Civil Action is the casting of Travolta. The actor's journey from shark to defender of the faceless poor seems so little in doubt that it's hard to stay interested. A role like this is slightly outside Travolta's abilities. It requires someone with a sharp, cold exterior instead of that fleshy, fallible humanity that makes Travolta instantly likable.

Zaillian doesn't miss any of the usual stops on the trolley, especially the scenes that take place in underlit courtrooms (that's John Lithgow in those cavelike shadows). The eccentric but satanic adversary, always the blessed relief in this kind of boy-lawyer story, is played by Robert Duvall in full attack-tortoise mode. The trick up Duvall's sleeve this time is a doddering, bitter cheapness: his character binds up his crummy briefcase with Scotch tape, and he makes a big wager on the civil case--a $20 bill, which he proffers reverently to Schlichtmann as if it were an autographed copy of the Magna Carta. At the end, the moral is inadvertent. All of Schlichtmann's woes just demonstrate what he was saying at the beginning of the film: If you have a good settlement offer, settle right away and don't take it to court.

A Civil Action (PG-13; 110 min.), directed and written by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Jonathan Harr, photographed by Conrad L. Hall and starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall.

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From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro.

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