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 adapted from Jonathan Harr’s true-life best-seller about the case of eight Woburn, Mass., families whose children contracted 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) is portrayed as a new-style 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 eight families, who believe, but can’t prove, that their collective tragedy was brought about by negligence. Spurring him on are a couple of very big corporate fish: W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods, both of which are alleged to have dumped toxic chemicals, thereby poisoning the local drinking water. The companies have so much to lose that Schlichtmann, who is used to prodding defendants into ponying up huge cash 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 (1993) and wrote the screenplay for Schindler’s List, A Civil Action starts well, but it turns into an almost perversely undramatic legal thriller. The evidence of the companies’ actions is presented right 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 shrink further from victory, the film 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 that Zaillian 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 clearly portrayed as the bad guy, it’s easy to sit back and glory in the actor’s homespun ruthlessness. Having the gumption to win isn’t everything, but in a courtroom drama it counts for a lot. C+