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. Even the liberal-crusade plots adhere to gender-specific preconditions.

The male reformer is a figure of authority, a member of the establishment — whether he’s lawyer Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, businessman Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, or just one of Hollywood’s Well-Meaning White South Africans (Donald Sutherland in A Dry White Season, Kevin Kline in Cry Freedom) — who suddenly realizes the price of his privilege, and selflessly takes a stand against his own class. The female reformer is a figure without authority, a marginalized member of the community — whether she’s slutty mill laborer Norma Rae or trashy nuke worker Karen Silkwood — who finally realizes her inherent worth and rises up to speak truth to power.

The women’s stories are essentially biblical tales of redemption, with modern Mary Magdalenes discovering a deeper meaning in life. In Martin Ritt’s union-card-carrying Norma Rae, Sally Field plays the soiled dove, a honky-tonk angel with tight T-shirts and loose morals. In Mike Nichols’ slickly paranoid Silkwood, it’s Meryl Streep as a line worker in a nuclear plant living in a menage that nobody can figure out. Both women have what their small-town neighbors would call a past; neither has much of a future. But then the load of daily injustices and injuries finally breaks their bowed backs, and with the help of a sexually elusive, exotically Jewish urban activist (New Yorker Ron Leibman in Norma Rae, D.C. shaker Ron Silver in Silkwood), they finally find themselves by finding a cause. (Too bad then that, despite such fine performances and compelling conflicts, Silkwood now feels like a No Nukes artifact and Norma Rae a little pre-NAFTA naive.)

The male-oriented stories, though, are stories of self-sacrifice and noblesse oblige. 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 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.

Finch’s journey is shorter than Schlichtmann’s; although his formidable moral authority grows throughout Mockingbird (armed with a reading lamp and a good book, he faces down a lynch mob), he ends it still referring to old black men by their first names, while accepting their deferential ”Mister” as his due. He is a better man than most, but he is still a man of his times. Schlichtmann, though, leaves his own yuppie cohort behind. He 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 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.
A Civil Action: A
To Kill a Mockingbird: A
Norma Rae: B+
Silkwood: B

To Kill a Mockingbird (Film)
  • Movie
  • 129 minutes