A Civil Action
I’ve been to court on several occasions (nothing illegal, just the usual: restraining orders, mob boss indictments, contract negotiations) and I have to tell you one thing: 99% of everything that goes on in court is boring. Extremely boring. It’s not very interesting or very compelling. As someone who sat through the entire O.J. Simpson murder trial could tell you, if they could bottle most of what happened in the courtroom during the trial it would make a great sleeping agent. Oh sure, every now and then something interesting would happen, but for the most part, I feel sorry for juries.
Some cases take forever, and it’s up to them to whittle away most of the fat and come up with the steak. That’s also the challenge of a screenwriter when working on a courtroom drama or thriller, especially one based on a true story. That was the challenge of writer Steve Zaillian, who planned to make his debut as a director with his script based on the true life case of a small law firm that went after industrial giants W.R. Grace and Beatrice. The law firm represented several families who claimed that the defendants contaminated the local drinking water, this resulting in the leukemia deaths of 12 children and the birth defects of several others. It was a long, arduous case that ended up bankrupting the law firm before they could prove their case.
As a screenwriter, Zaillian does a masterful job of condensing the time frame into a two hour movie. As a director, Zaillian makes all of this compelling stuff. From the first moments we meet attorney Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), we know exactly where he and his firm stand. They’re in it for the money. Zaillian even writes a brilliant introduction that explains the value of human life, and if it weren’t so sad and true it would be funny. Zaillian is wise not to make Schlichtmann a knight in shining armor, but a man who is comfortable because he knows the parameters of the court. He knows that by wheeling the wheelchair bound plaintiff in front of the jury it would evoke a settlement.
Schlichtmann is smart, and when his firm is approached by the citizens of a small town to represent them in a suit over the deaths of their children to leukemia, he reluctantly says no. He tells them that there is no one to sue. They need proof. One of the mothers (the ever durable Kathleen Quinlan) mentions that they’re not interested in money. All they want is an explanation and an apology. Schlichtmann is interested in the money, and turns them down. Then he learns that the local drinking water might have been contaminated by a tannery along the river. Small potatoes, but it’s a start. His interest grows when he learns that the tannery is a subsidiary of two giant corporations, W.R. Grace and Beatrice, both of whom have deep pockets. Schlichtmann takes the case, and devotes all of his attention and personnel to the cause.
It’s not long before he is spending more than the firm is bringing in, forcing partners James Gordon (William H. Macy), Bill Crowley (Zeljko Ivanek) and Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub) to make some creative financial sacrifices. Short on funds, Schlichtmann also finds himself facing a biased judge (John Lithgow) and a no-nonsense attorney (Robert Duvall) who knows the score. Unfortunately, it seems like every one involved in the case has deep pockets except Schlichtmann, his firm and the people he represents, a deterrent that leads to numerous complications. For any courtroom drama to work, the dialogue has to sparkle, and Zaillian manages to have his cake and eat it too by writing intelligent dialogue that is also easy to digest.
The exchanges between the characters bristle with immediacy and thought. Zaillian never takes the easy way out, and instead works the plot exposition into the plot instead of having a character stand there and explain everything. I hate it when that happens, because it lacks in so many ways. A good writer knows how to weave pertinent information into the threads of dialogue without sounding preachy. Zaillian is such a writer. As a director, he’s equally adept. He proves he knows more than just where to put the camera. He brings out the best in the cast. Travolta is such a dynamic actor you instantly bond with his character. He makes you feel Schlichtmann’s highs and lows, and his frustrations. Duvall, who co-starred with Travolta in “Phenomenon,” excels as crusty old lawyer Jerome Facher.
Oscar-nominated for the role, Duvall’s presence is so strong that you miss him when he’s not on screen. His exchanges with Travolta are some of the film’s best. It’s such a pleasure watching these two pros (and old friends) spar. Macy, Ivanek and Shalhoub lend great support as Schlichtmann’s team, while Lithgow is appropriately scary as the stern judge who won’t give an inch. Discovery is such an important part of any courtroom movie, and there’s enough here to easily fill two hours. The more Schlichtmann and his team learn the more compelling the film becomes. Before it’s done, you’ll find yourself rooting on the underdog.
VISION: [ X ] 20/20 [ ] Good [ ] Cataracts [ ] Blind
Warm, respectable 1.85:1 widescreen transfer delivers vivid imagery with only a small amount of digital noise. Otherwise, the film looks sensational, from it’s dreamy warm interiors, to it’s crystal clear stark exteriors. Flesh tones are especially flattering. Blacks are solid, and hold up well during the film’s many naturally lit interior scenes. Colors are cool, but that’s the nature of the beast. Depth of field is particularly strong, as is attention to detail. It’s easy to appreciate the effort when you see Conrad Hall’s gorgeous sunsets survive the transfer intact.
HEARING: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Minor Hearing Loss [ ] Needs Hearing Aid [ ] Deaf
Even though the film is dialogue driven, there is enough going on to justify the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround soundtrack. The rear speakers find their strength in the film’s musical score, although there is some delicate ambient noise going on. Occasionally the soundtrack expands and encompasses all of the speakers, and it is here that the surround effects are appreciated rather than taken advantage of. Basses are okay but not overpowering, while the front stereo split is effective when used. No noticeable audio hiss or distortion.
ORAL: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Poor
Closed captions in English for the hard of hearing.
COORDINATION: [ ] Excellent [ ] Good [ X ] Clumsy [ ] Weak
The usual main and scene access menus, plus the film’s original theatrical trailer. There’s also a short production featurette, and some Reel Recommendations.
PROGNOSIS: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Fit [ ] Will Live [ ] Resuscitate [ ] Terminal
This riveting courtroom drama makes an excellent case for itself on DVD.
VITALS: $29.98/Rated PG-13/115 Minutes/Color/25 Chapter Stops/Keepcase/#16790
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
PATIENT: A CIVIL ACTION
BIRTH DATE: 1998
HMO: Touchstone Home Video