115 Min | Drama | December 1998
IMDB Rating: 6.5
Director: Steven Zaillian
Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Kathleen Quinlan
A Civil Action Review: “A Civil Action” was a pleasant surprise because it is not only like neither of those films, but also because it is a good film starring John Travolta. While he had his moments in the spotlight for good reason (think “Pulp Fiction”) his movies are generally not that great. Still, “A Civil Action” is a great courtroom film. For one, it’s a true story, and it is told with restraint, quietness and respect for the characters involved. It takes the best from “Silkwood” and “Verdict” and it gives us people who are real and who engage in battle the way we imagine real people would. They don’t have dramatic moments in the courtroom upon which an unreal stillness descends so as to be shattered at the end of the speech by the thunderous sound of unanimous, emotionally-fraught clapping.
John Travolta is great here and so is the rest of the cast, among them William H. Macy, Kathleen Quinlan, Sydney Pollack, John Lithgow, Stephen Fry, Kathy Bates and the great Robert Duvall. In the end, it is Duvall who steals the show in his quiet, unemotional musings, advice-givings and deliberations with Travolta. He embodies the restraint for which the film strives. “A Civil Action” is quiet in its proceedings and, consequently real. It tells the story of a lawyer who reluctantly accepts a case having to do with the contamination of water and the deaths of many children in a small town and becomes obsessed with it to the point of going bankrupt. His obsession mirrors the self-destructiveness of Paul Newman’s lawyer in “Verdict,” and it has real results. His adversaries are not evil people, per se, but people who are simply doing their jobs damn well, defending their interests.
And watching “A Civil Action” we don’t and it doesn’t. The personalities clash, personal tragedy is pitted against financial burdens of the legal process, and it yields startling conclusions about the American Justice system. And that is what “A Civil Action” chooses to focus on more so than the true story it tells. The film shows the price of justice and how justice is understood in the legal process. In fact, it draws a very fine dichotomy between non-legal justice and legal justice and shows how hard it is to get “justice” in a legal setting. Needless to say, it becomes a very expensive ordeal full of re-interpretations of the law and annoying manipulations of it. What we can gather from the story, however, is that we should be grateful for people who are willing to go to extreme lengths, at great personal cost, to define justice on their own terms and to fight for it.