John Travolta has a gift for playing flamboyantly self-satisfied smooth-talk hustlers, but it mysteriously deserted him in “Primary Colors” (where he made the most verbally dexterous politician of our time look like a good ol’ jackass). Now he’s got it back in “A Civil Action.” In this courtroom drama based on Jonathan Harr’s true-life bestseller about the case of eight Woburn, Mass., families who lost their children to leukemia, Travolta is blithe and sharky as Jan Schlichtmann, a personal- injury lawyer who makes no bones about the fact that he’s a parasite. The film is set in the ’80s, but in Hollywood terms, Schlichtmann (a name even the pulpiest screenwriter might not have dreamed up) represents a new style of ambulance chaser: not just sleazy but proud of his venality, a master of exploiting other people’s pain.
Smelling a big payoff, Schlichtmann agrees to let his firm take on the case of the families, who believe, but can’t prove, that their tragedies were caused by negligence. Spurring him on are a couple of very big corporate fish: W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, both of which share ownership of a tannery that may have buried toxic chemicals, poisoning the local drinking water. The companies have so much to lose that Schlichtmann, who is used to coercing defendents into ponying up huge settlements, can’t bring himself to resolve the case out of court, even when one of the companies makes an offer. He wants the ultimate score. Or is it that he wants justice? It’s the premise of “A Civil Action” that Schlichtmann, almost in spite of himself, begins to change his spots during the trial. He spends all of the firm’s money, plunging it into debt. He gets himself and his partners in so deep that they can’t pull out. Their only choice is to win the case.
Written and directed by Steven Zaillian, who made “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1992) and wrote the screenplay for “Schindler’s List,” “A Civil Action” starts out well, but it turns into an almost perversely undramatic legal thriller. The evidence of the companies’ guilt is presented up front, with little of the usual surprise-witness hokum. No problem there, except that as the case drags on, and Schlichtmann and his team appear to shrink further from victory, the movie turns, in essence, into the story of how they lose their shirts. We’re denied the melodramatic pleasures of the courtroom genre, but, more than that, there’s something a little unseemly in the way the film glorifies Schlichtmann’s plunge into insolvency, as if that were a more vital issue than the pain of the families (who are given short shrift). Robert Duvall, speaking in a dulcet quaver, carves exquisite ham as the Harvard law professor who defends Beatrice Foods, and though he’s the bad guy, it’s easy to sit back and glory in the actor’s surgical ruthlessness. Having the gumption to win isn’t everything, but in a courtroom drama it counts for a lot.