Film Review Hotline

Selected from the May 1999
Film Review

John Travolta, humbled lawyer in A Civil Action
A CIVIL ACTION
3 Stars

Civil actions don't always speak louder than words.

Also from this issue: our five-star review of AN IDEAL HUSBAND

STARS: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, John Lithgow, William H Macy, Kathleen Quinlan, Stephen Fry, Kathy Bates DIRECTOR: Steven ZaillianSCREENPLAY: Steven Zaillian
CERTIFICATE: 15DISTRIBUTOR and Picture copyright: UIP
RUNNING TIME: 1hr 55minsOPENING DATE (UK): April 16

Unlike most legal thrillers of late (more often than not dreamed up by John Grisham), Steven Zaillian's A Civil Action is based on a real-life case and it's the film's admirable attention to the known facts that is both its strength and its undoing. Knowing that what is unfolding on screen really happened lends the story an undeniable frisson.

But, for all the fascinating minutiae of the case - and the outrageous cover-up surrounding it - the trajectory of events don't always make for gripping drama. The newspapers are full of terrible injustices routed out by conscientious individuals, but that doesn't make them sure-fire fodder for the commercial screen. Notwithstanding, writer and director Zaillian's meticulously crafted and superbly played legal thriller has much to commend it.

It's the story of Jan Schlichtman (Travolta), an extremely successful, ruthless personal-injury lawyer who has built his empire on a façade of caring. Yet, as he reveals in his cod-compassionate opening voice-over, the most worthless client of all is a dead child. Far better, he reasons, to represent a 40-year-old professional man cut down in his prime - think of the financial compensation you could win from the loss of earnings.

When, through a series of fateful accidents, Schlichtman is forced to reappraise a particularly unappetising case, he sees a way of not only salving his conscience but making a bundle into the bargain. The citizens of Woburn, Massachusetts, have been suffering an uncommon rate of deaths from leukemia and rightly suspect that it's something in the water. Schlichtman resolves to prove them right - at any cost.

As the humbled lawyer determined to rally all his legal savvy to crack the case, Travolta brings the essential charisma to the role. While we may not approve of Schlichtmann's barn-storming tactics, he allows us a glimpse of the little boy lost beneath the swagger of the man. The Oscar nominated Robert Duvall is sensational as his wily courtroon nemesis, a man with enough experience to ignore the slick mechanics of outward appearances. Ultimately, it's not what you think that counts, it's what you know.

James Cameron-Wilson

A Civil Actionphoto copyright UIP
Read our massive new reviews section in this month's Film Review
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PLUNKETT AND MACLEANE April 2
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER April 2
HIGH ART April 9
ORGAZMO April 9
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HAPPINESS April 16
PROMETHEUS April 16
RETURN TO PARADISE April 16
ORPHANS April 23
eXistenZ April 23
SIDE STREETS April 23
EARTH April 23
SOLOMON & GAENOR April 30