Truth is what gives this often convoluted legal drama a leg up on Hollywood’s usual Grisham-esque histrionics. John Travolta stars as Jan Schlichtmann, a slick-dressing, Porsche-driving personal-injury lawyer who enjoys his status as one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors and his rep for hustling big bucks for his clients, his firm and himself. It’s no wonder Jan is drawn to represent eight families in Woburn, Massachusetts, who believe that W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods have contaminated the town’s drinking water and bear responsibility for the leukemia deaths of their children. “I can appreciate the theatrical value of several dead kids,” Jan tells his partners, Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub) and Bill Crowley (Zeljko Ivanek), and his accountant, James Gordon (William H. Macy).
But in the eight years and $2.6 million in medical and scientific tests it takes to futilely fight this case against two corporate Goliaths who wreck him financially, Jan comes to appreciate the human value of those several dead kids as well. A Civil Action is a whale of a tale about justice gone wrong. At least it was in the 1995 best seller by Jonathan Harr that laid out the facts of the case in shocking detail and with the tightening grip of a first-rate thriller. Things go disturbingly slack in the screen version, despite the best efforts of writer-director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer), who won a screenplay Oscar for Schindler’s List. Events are condensed and sometimes egregiously simplified. A parent, Anne Anderson, well played by Kathleen Quinlan, tells a heart-rending story about her dying son. We want to know more, but there’s no time. Fine actors, chosen to put flesh on the bones of the plot, appear — only to vanish after establishing a single character trait. There’s John Lithgow as a snarky judge, Dan Hedaya as a lying polluter, and Sydney Pollack, who is so good as a wily CEO that you want to follow his every move. No time. The result is a well-meaning movie that skims the highlights of a riveting story without plumbing its depths.
The exception comes in the electrifying scenes between Travolta and the great Robert Duvall, who portrays Jerry Facher, the oldpro attorney for Beatrice Foods. Sitting outside the courtroom, Jerry presents Jan with a settlement offer of $20 million. “We’re gods,” says Jerry. He’s right. Many cases come down to two attorneys calling each other’s bluff without the presence of a judge or jury. But Jerry’s number doesn’t flatter Jan’s ego or his sense of justice. And it’s justice that falls through the cracks. To find out why, you’ll have to skip Zaillian’s earnest but curiously uninvolving movie and read the book.