A Civil Action

One thing that can be said right away about A Civil Action is that it is more daring than most other courtroom dramas. Then again, this isn’t really a courtroom drama anyway. The film involves a small-time personal injury lawyer that brought himself down and took his partners with him when he got too involved in one case. But despite what the ads may tell you, the film is not about this case. It’s about the man.

John Travolta is Jan Schlichtmann, a decent lawyer working for a small firm. In the beginning we get the adea that he is too financially concious. Through the rest of the film, Jan does his best to destroy that image. He gets intrigued by a case involving big companies dumping toxins in drinking water. These toxins have given leukemia to some children and killed others. He seems to get emotionally involved in this case. So much so as a matter of fact, that he takes his firm, and his partners to bancrupcy over it. But is he involved, really?

The highlight of A Civil Action is its incredible cast. John Travolta is perfectly cast as the slick yet deeply troubled lawyer. Even more perfect is Robert Duvall as the brilliant, eccentric opposing defense attorney, and it will be a real shame if he does not earn himself an Oscar nod with his enchanting performance. Turns from William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek in smaller roles are also very solid.

Director Steven Zaillian certainly knows how to construct an effective drama. Most famous for writing Schindler’s List, he also directed the well made Searching for Bobby Fischer. And here he has some flashes of genius. He was confident enough to insert plenty of comedy to the proceedings which only works to make the film even more impressive. Zaillian also brilliantly pulls off some tricky cinematic maneuvers, such as lengthy sequences of interwined narration. He’s a show-off, and the results are extraordinary.

The film is so daring because it features a protagonist that we cannot and do not sympathize with. What we have here is a man who’s does not really feel for these people he is representing. He is a personal injury lawyer who is trying to justify his career to himself. Statements are made that all personal-injury law is about nothing but money. He feels he has to prove to himself that he does have some sense of morality, of “right and wrong”. And perhaps the theme of the movie is that no man should have to go through that.

-- Eugene Novikov

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