Well-directed thriller delves into legal processes
A Civil Action
John Grisham made the legal thriller genre popular, though no one would accuse him of being an excellent writer. His novels are catered to the American public, allowing the readers to understand the procedures of the legal system without having to do a lot of thinking. Grisham's stories tend to be highly melodramatic, but for a reason: no one would want to read a novel concerning the actual occurances through a real trial procedural. Nobody wants to watch lawyers drudge through countless amounts of documents and books, searching for any possible way to beat the system.
A CIVIL ACTION takes a different route, trying to show those real trial procedures. The thought of watching a film about lawyers reading doesn't exactly sound exciting, but leave it to director Steven Zaillian who manages to evoke a certain mood of desperation and fear which increases the level of tension permeating the film. There have been many films that have dealt with water in a threatening way (The Abyss, Sphere), but none have ever captured water looking more ominous than it does here. As Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) stands on a bridge, the water rushes underneath him. The sound almost approaches a mocking quality, as if the water itself holds a deadly secret.
The film, based on the non-fiction novel by Jonathan Harr, concerns Schlichtmann and his small law firm consisting of attorneys Bill Crowley (Zeljko Ivanek) and Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub). Also on hand is financial advisor James Gordon (William H. Macy). Together, they head out to find cases which will be the most profitable. Opening with a voiceover by Schlichtmann, we are informed that a white male at the prime of his life is the most profitable victim. "Sadly, a dead child is the least." Of course, the entire film revolves around a case of 12 dead or dying children. Discovered by Conway, Schlichtmann first dismisses the case because it seemingly has no target. If the water was in fact the cause, who is responsible?
Upon discovering that two major companies were involved, Schlichtmann immediately adopts the case and spends all his time and resources gathering information. However, he runs his company dry of funding, and they must resort to getting loans, using credit cards, and even buying lottery tickets. Gordon soon mortgages their homes and loses everything they have. A dilemma of moral and ethical proportions develops: should Schlichtmann give up fighting the case merely because he has lost all of his money? Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) is the spokesperson for the families that lost their children. Her debates with Schlichtmann sound more like pleas for sympathy. When Schlichtmann urges the families to settle for the eight million dollars offered (mostly because he can't afford to work on the case anymore), Anderson stands and gravely announces, "How can you even compare what you've lost to what we have?"
While A CIVIL ACTION revolves around the case, the film is not necessarily about who wins and who loses. Proof of that is how the film resolves everything. There is no big showdown in a final courtroom sequence. There is no obvious winner or loser. The plot actually revolves around Schlichtmann, and his slow descent (or ascent, whichever fits) into a caring human being. While fighting the case, he discovers Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), a strong attorney with a short attention span. At first, Facher seems to be a very unusual character, carrying around a beaten-up suitcase and bouncing a ball on walls. But as the film progresses towards its conclusion, Schlichtmann slowly begins to realize that Facher's act is not one of peculiarity, but of assuredness. Facher is so headstrong that his appearance catches other lawyers off-guard. And soon enough, Schlichtmann begins to turn into Facher (not literally, of course).
Unfortunately, the film is not without its problems. The ending is almost anti-climactic, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of viewers looking for a film with some closure. The worst way a film can end is by cheating the viewer out of an ending that is suitable for the events that transpired before it. The Devil's Advocate is the most blatant example of a cheap ending. In A CIVIL ACTION, the filmmakers rely on the old and tried textual cues. These almost always represent a lack of creativity by the filmmakers, and it is such here as well. Instead of creating a suitable ending, they leave it hanging in mid-air, forcing the readers to read the ending of the film. As the old saying goes, "If I wanted to read something, I'd read a book." A film should be able to give closure to a film by telling it with pictures, not words.
Director Zaillian (who also wrote) is a very competent director, as he displayed with his stunning debut Searching for Bobby Fisher . Here, he shows that he has improved as a director, achieving an almost Redford quality to his images. Every time a glass of water is poured, one almost cringes in fear. Never have I imagined water to look so threatening before. Zaillian also captures a dark mood, the pedastal of good lawyer films. The sets are dark, and the cinematography is glossy and sleek. Even little shots, such as water pouring onto a hardwood table, are captured with a fascinating smoothness. The use of the lighting is also very effective to portray the decaying morality. Paradoxically, the lights are at the brightest during scenes when Schlichtmann's firm is doing exceedingly well financially. As Schlichtmann begins to care for the victims of the crime, the lighting gets darker and darker, until the entire city goes completely black (due to a city-wide power outtage). It's a sharp looking film with a good story to back it. Zaillian's screenplay also contains an enormous amount of humor, which had the audience laughing many times throughout the film. The dialogue is sharp and biting, though it tends to stroll into absurdity sometimes. The only unfortunate thing is the aforementioned ending which kept it from achieving greatness.
John Travolta is a powerful actor when he wants to be, and he is here. His portrayal of a stubborn man broken down by the realization that money is not everything is effective and heartfelt. This is one film that could have benefitted from a longer running-time, allowing his character to change more gradually. Robert Duvall is great here in an Oscar-worthy role. If he does get an Oscar for this performance, it will make up for his snub for 1997's The Apostle. Kathleen Quinlan is relegated to a smaller role than she probably should have had, but she makes the most of it. Her face shows the toughness of a woman who has nothing more to lose in life. "All I want is an apology," she asks. William H. Macy deserves to win an Oscar, and he will sooner or later. This year he has demonstrated powerful acting in several films, including Pleasantville. Now he adds this powerful performance, which becomes the comic relief during the disheartening moments of the film. Tony Shalhoub is one of the best supporting actors working nowadays, but no one knows who he is. Shalhoub almost always makes a film better. John Lithgow, Dan Hedaya, and Stephen Fry are also very strong in their roles.
A CIVIL ACTION is rated PG-13 for strong language and some thematic elements. This is a film specifically designed for adults. The tension and suspense is palpable, especially during the trial sequences, which tend to be rather boring in other films. A lot of the tension is played outside the courtroom, in hallways and bathrooms as well. With powerful actors and a taut screenplay, the flaws are easy to overlook. The ending may be contrived and uninteresting, but the preceding hundred minutes is well worth seeing. Here is a film that tries to show what real law is like, and succeeds with flying colors.
***1/2 out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie