By Marc S. Sanders
In A Civil Action, writer/director Steve Zaillian allows John Travolta to demonstrate the workings of a remorseless ambulance chasing lawyer with a pride for the finest in men’s wear and the title of one of the most eligible bachelors in Boston, Massachusetts. Then, all of that crumbles apart when a self-effacing acknowledgment breaks through.
Travolta portrays real-life attorney Jan Schlictmann, who heads a small personal injury law practice with three partners (Tony Shalhoub, William H Macy and Zeljko Ivanec). They go after the cases that promise large settlements from hospitals, insurance companies and multi-million-dollar corporations. The best cases are where the mid-30’s breadwinning male of the household has suffered irreparable damages. The victim is not deceased, but permanently handicapped, unable to work and provide for his family. A dead victim is not as theatrically attractive. Better to put the poor soul in the wheelchair on stage for the winning cash settlement.
When Jan is boxed into a corner to meet with the residents of a small New England town, he dismisses their case as an unwinnable nuisance. The townsfolk believe that their children have taken ill, with some not surviving, due to locally contaminated drinking water. Kathleen Quinlan is one mother who wants an apology and explanation from whoever is responsible. An apology holds no tangible value for Jan though, until he observes who the primary suspects are likely to be; two large corporations that own well known brands like Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tropicana Orange Juice, and Samonsite Luggage. Now the pockets to collect from could go on forever, and Jan does not realize until it’s too late how much of a personal gamble he is undertaking with himself and his partners in tow.
A Civil Action has always left me thinking on so many different levels since I first saw it in theaters. The value of a life, especially a child’s life, is not very significant when corporate America profits on dollar bills. The priority of environmental protection and its most precious resource, water, is just as minimal, maybe more. Zaillian uncovered a fantastic character arc from a very frighteningly sad and true story. Jan Schlictmann proudly dons an appearance of false care for victims of botched surgeries and car accidents to advance his ego and materialistic nature. However, then he found a conscience, as he realized that money doesn’t win cases for his clients. Instead, the acceptance of responsibility triumphs. That surrendering admittance, though, is not expected to come from these companies. Not when the burden of proof only comes from a measly platoon of four small town attorneys, who could never bear the expenses of proving such gross negligence and wrong doing. This is a David & Goliath confrontation.
Beyond a cast of recognizable faces, there are scenes in this film that just stay with you. Most especially for me is the unforgiving nature of Quinlan’s suffering maternal character. She no longer has any care in the world for whatever sacrifices are made by the lawyers to reveal the truth of what happened. I didn’t think that was fair of her, frankly. Zaillian demonstrates what these four guys endure as the case prolongs itself. However, people are unfair. Sometimes they are unreasonable because they have been pushed down to a bottom they’ll never climb up from. This movie and the circumstances at play are not here to please me and make me feel good with a tidy ending wrapped in a bow, however. The script is brutally honest in its characterizations.
What’s also disturbing about this case is simply water. Countless times, Steve Zaillian gets close up shots of glasses and pitchers of clear, crisp water. Children are drinking water. Water is spilled on tables. Jan’s enemies in trial will indulge in a refreshing gulp from a glass as they finish a scene with him. The movie reminds you time and again that water is the silent killer.
Robert Duvall is the shining talent on the other side of the aisle from Travolta as an attorney in a fifty-dollar suit with a beat up fifty-dollar briefcase representing one of the large companies that is being sued. Duvall makes his shark of an attorney appear effortless. He falls asleep in court. He tucks away in a corner to listen to the Red Sox play on his transistor radio. Yet, he’s wise enough to know how to derail an opposing counsel’s case with just his quiet, unspoken presence at the table. He isn’t even so much a villain or an antagonist as he allows the hero of the film ample opportunity to settle rather than charge on. His urgencies don’t work however because Jan has changed. Where he once saw money, he now sees something much more valuable that is beyond any variance of negotiation. The scenes shared between the handsome, fit and well-dressed John Travolta against the older, short, hunched yet astute Robert Duvall play beautifully here. There is top notch stage performance work happening here.
It amazes me that A Civil Action is not available on Blu Ray or 4K. Look at this cast and its direction. It’s magnificent. Zaillian’s film moves with a fast pace of easy-to-follow courtroom theatrics. Additional performances from Sydney Pollack, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, and John Lithgow are so engrossing. William H Macy is very good too, as the desperate man trying to keep Jan’s cause afloat. Why is this film not being granted the accessibility it deserves? I actually had to pay for a streaming rental watch. No matter, it was worth it. For like Jan Schlictmann, money is not the most important commodity known to man. Morality and decency will stretch further than money that’s been spent, never to be replenished. A noble and most human thing you can do is to experience Steve Zaillian’s film, A Civil Action. Then you will understand what an unjust world any one of us could fall victim to. Then maybe you will understand the loss a loving mother endures far outweighs any financial liability from a grocery food company.