Stephen Whitty
July 13, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The lawyer has a case going to trial, but he still has time to give us a quick course in damages–or attitude. ”It’s like this,” he snaps. ”A dead adult in his 20s is generally worth less than one who is middle-aged. A dead woman less than a dead man. A single adult less than one who’s married. Black less than white. Poor less than rich.” This officer of the court values nothing, but he knows the price of victimhood. And ”in the calculus of personal-injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all.”

A Civil Action has barely begun, and writer-director Steven Zaillian is already daring us to hate his hero. It would be a risky strategy in any other sort of movie, but here, both Zaillian and star John Travolta are actually playing it safe. Because this adaptation of the Jonathan Harr best-seller is a Righteous Reformer movie–and in this genre everything, including the hero’s third-act redemption, is preordained.

In ”A Civil Action,” the hero is Travolta’s Jan Schlichtmann, an otherwise conscienceless ambulance chaser who suddenly chases after industrial polluters; in Robert Mulligan’s stately ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” it’s Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, a popular lawyer who defends an unpopular suspect because ”if I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up.” Unlike the female reformers, it’s not the males’ jobs that are in jeopardy but their self-respect. And they will put themselves through the eye of a needle if they have to, just to keep it.

Schlichtmann loses his cold callousness (”I can appreciate the theatrical value of several dead kids,” he says early on). He rights his materialistic priorities (he ends the film with nothing to his name but $14 and a portable radio). And most crucially, he confronts–too late–his own deadly sin of pride, a classic and tragic flaw that ultimately costs everyone.

Schlichtmann is the focus of ”A Civil Action,” and that angered some reviewers the first time around; why is this about the lawyers, they sniffed, and not the plaintiffs? Adding fuel to their ire was the fact that there was even a standard female reformer character standing by: Kathleen Quinlan as the grieving, working-class mother who spearheaded the actual suit. But telling the story from her point of view would be a little like telling ”To Kill a Mockingbird” through the eyes of Atticus Finch’s client. Zaillian isn’t doing a movie about a great wrong righted or an outcast woman redeemed. He’s telling the story of one prodigal son finally finding his way home.

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