Where’s the justice? that’s the question more than a few disciples of The Apostle asked when Jack Nicholson strolled on stage last year to accept the Best Actor Oscar for As Good as It Gets. So this year, Duvall took the law into his own hands — playing a canny corporate defense attorney in A Civil Action.
The movie version of Jonathan Harr’s true-life legal story was supposed to focus on John Travolta’s Jan Schlichtmann, a venal ambulance chaser whose battle against two giant corporations accused of poisoning a town’s drinking water — and causing leukemia in several children — transforms him into a frustrated crusader.
But the movie turns out to be as much about Goliath as about David, thanks to Duvall. As opposing counsel Jerome Facher, he turns our expectations inside out: Rather than play Facher as a clichéd corporate sleazebag, Duvall injects the stereotypical white-shoe Boston Brahmin lawyer with surprising depth and complexity. He’s an old-fashioned Yankee coot — a crusty eccentric who eats brown-bag lunches in the stacks of Harvard’s law library; carries a tattered old briefcase covered in decals of cartoon characters; and bases his moods on the fickle fortunes of his beloved Red Sox. Duvall’s signature trick is to bring a sympathetic side to such ethically challenged figures. Who can say with certainty whether he was playing heroes or villains in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Tender Mercies (which snagged him the 1983 Best Actor Oscar)? Anyone who has looked at these morally ambiguous characters has seen a bit of themselves. So when Facher grins like a Cheshire cat and asks Travolta, ”The truth? I thought we were talking about a court of law,” you’re hearing the voice of a jaded old-timer who knows all too well that rarely in this world is there any such thing as justice.