Reportedly, Jonathan Harr’s nonfiction best-seller A Civil Action is being used as a textbook in law schools. The movie that has been made from it is unlikely to be used as a model in film schools. Written and directed by Steve Zaillian, A Civil Action has more negative virtues than positive. It’s commendable for not doing many of the things we expect from legal thrillers in this Grisham era, but we’re left with a long trudge through the ambiguities of civic virtue.
The case in question is an eight-year wrongful-death suit spearheaded by personal-injury attorney Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta, not in top form) against W.R. Grace & Company and Beatrice Foods for dumping toxic chemicals in the Woburn, Massachusetts, water supply and allegedly causing the deaths of five children and one adult. What makes the story a movie natural is that Schlictmann, who starts out as a high-gloss ambulance chaser and “one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors,” ends up obsessed with the moral rightness of his case even as it drags down to the last penny the resources of his firm. What makes the story a movie bummer is that it doesn’t end on a high.
I’m all for films that don’t flow from the usual Hollywood test tubes, but A Civil Action is basically the standard formula with a dash of downbeat. Schlictmann is the sharpie crusader who gives himself up for righteousness; his legal adversary, played maliciously well by Robert Duvall, is fond of saying stuff like “The courtroom is not the place to look for truth.” It may not be enough anymore for filmmakers to frame legal thrillers in the same old self-righteous ways: Having passed from O.J. through Zippergate, we’ve perhaps become too wised-up for that approach. Zaillian may think he’s playing up to us, but he’s playing down. He’s made a movie where the chicanery of the legal profession is treated as breaking news.