A Civil Action (1998)

Written & Directed by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Jonathan Harr
Starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan

My Advice: Matinee.

This film doesn't want to stick with the genre of "Grishamesque courtroom drama" (which it could have done very easily) but instead moves to the level of a study in how completely screwed the American justice system is. It manages to do this thanks to an intriguing story and a wonderful ensemble cast.

Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta) is one of Boston's best personal injury lawyers, and he thinks he knows how to play the game of the justice system to the hilt.  He tells us the rules of the game (and he does see it as just that, a game) in strategic voiceovers.  When he is cornered on a radio talk show by a woman (Quinlan) his firm's been trying to avoid, he finds he needs to at least look at her case to save face.  What he learns is that eight children have died and two corporations with deep pockets may have had a hand in it.  This gets his attention, and he's sure he can make a fortune off of it.

The story, a true one, doesn't have all the neat and tidy items that you might expect from your garden variety courtroom drama.  For one thing, the opposing lawyer's not Satan incarnate (or am I thinking Devil's Advocate?).  He's kindly old professor Robert Duvall, who's just doing his job (delivering the standout performance of the film), and is so good, he could apparently do that job in his sleep.  The "good guys" aren't on some quest for righteousness--they're running a business.  It's this presentation of the reality of the game, and its rules, that make the story that much more interesting once Jan wants to do something right for a change and transcend everything he's ever known about justice. 

I wasn't very pleased with how the ending was handled, but other than that, the film was well shot, with the right balance of drama and humor.  And in addition to a good flawed hero by Travolta, as well as his nemesis in Duvall, you have the always excellent Macy as the frazzled accountant, Gordon, desperate to keep the firm afloat while they're spending way too much money for their own good.  This film's good enough for the big screen, but save some dough and see an early show.

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