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Metro Pulse Guilty!

Travolta and company discover that reality makes for dull drama--even in courtrooms.

By Zak Weisfeld

JANUARY 19, 1999:  Lawyers, and the nitty-grittiness of the law, are facets of extremely-late 20th century life that, sadly, cannot be avoided. It is strange then that so few movies (filmmakers and snowboarders being, perhaps, the only more omnipresent professions in our culture) address the actual business of the lawyers and the law. Oh, there are plenty of crusading lawyers and no shortage of courtroom dramas, but these always involve murder and the outcome is always elegantly dramatic—innocent or guilty. No film springs to mind that actually delves into the morass of civil law with its messy semi-conclusions and nearly infinite appeals process.

A Civil Action, based on the award winning non-fiction book by Jonathan Harr, seeks to remedy this painful gap in our popular culture—and in doing so explains with artful simplicity the reason why it is there in the first place.

Starring John Travolta as aggressive personal injury lawyer Jan Schlictmann, A Civil Action is the true (or based on a true) story of Schlictmann's suit against two corporate giants on behalf of some downtrodden townsfolk. The role is a good fit for Travolta. In the way that he can seem both well-fed and slightly hungry, Travolta's charm has always been just a lip curl away from arrogance. In Schlictmann, Travolta has found his perfect vehicle.

What Travolta has never seemed, however, is powerfully intelligent and it is thus slightly painful to see him go up against Robert Duvall. As Jerome Facher, the legal counsel for Beatrice Foods—one of the companies responsible for the toxic dumping that may have brought about the deaths by leukemia of several children—Duvall seems to be attempting a cross between Walter Brennan and his own Tom Hagen from The Godfather. Facher is an eccentric old coot, but Duvall keeps a feral intelligence in his eyes. In comparison, Travolta seems lunkish—passionate maybe, but if I were hiring attorneys I'd go with Duvall.

Unfortunately, the conflict between the two lawyers—passionate, reckless arrogance versus quiet, self-effacing calculation—never comes to a head. Sticking with admirable diligence to the truth of the true story, writer/director Steven Zaillian fritters away almost every one of A Civil Action's dramatic opportunities. The truth, a difficult burden for the law to bear, is an almost impossible one for a filmmaker.

As any writer can tell you, the truth rarely makes for a good story. In life, characters seldom develop in a satisfying manner, the plot is often convoluted, and the ending difficult to pin down. While trying to make both a gripping drama and a beautifully photographed documentary with movie stars, Zaillian manages neither.

Simplifications necessary for making sense of complicated legal maneuvers come to seem suspicious, while the blunted character arcs of reality disappoint dramatically. Zaillian's work is made even more difficult by the sheer number of characters. This both gives us less time to know the characters that seem to be at the heart of the film, and forces many of the minor characters into rough cartoons. The hardy townspeople of Woburn fare worst from this treatment. Against the complicated morality of the attorneys, the townspeople are patronizingly simple—a dough-faced, Boston-accented, Greek chorus. In the end, their pleas for a simple apology from the corporate giants comes across as shallow and less than wholly credible.

It is not that A Civil Action is bad. The film is beautiful to look at, perfectly gloomy, a world of dark echoing courtrooms and a monochromatic winter laid across the landscape. Excellently cast and crisply written, A Civil Action practically bristles with integrity and professionalism, like a respected law firm.

What Zaillian fails to make is a compelling argument. He forgets that personal injury lawyers and filmmakers are not that different. Both traffic ultimately in the same wares—loss and death, tragedy and guilt. The main difference, of course, is that the audience in personal injury law is small and they don't have to pay admission before taking their seats.

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