A group of parents, whose children have died via pollution, enlist Jan Schlichtmann, a hot-shot lawyer to fight their case against two huge corporations. But Schlichtmann soon realises that he may have met his match in opposing lawyer, Jerome Facher, with defeat possibly spelling financial ruin for him and his firm.
Studious, ever-so mature and firmly grounded in the eternal combat between big legal issues and moral backbone, dead serious filmmaker Steven Zaillian (who made Innocent Moves and scripted Schindler's List) determinedly knocks the Grisham out of the chunky Hollywood courtroom tussle.
Commendable certainly, but with the pop novelist's sweaty lawyer sideshows goes much of the fun. A Civil Action is all moody debate and weighty performance, deadpan and weirdly unmoving, jabbing uneasily at the frothy betes noires of the courtroom thriller - the moral redemption of the money-grabbing lawyer; the downfall of the soulless corporate no-gooder; the teasing examination of the fallibility of the justice system. True case or not, it's a mystery why Hollywood was fussed about it at all.
The ambulance chaser at the nub is Travolta's Jan Schlichtmann, a hotshot personal liability litigator who uncovers a potential goldmine in the case of Woburn, Massachusetts, the snowy hamlet whose water supply was contaminated by industrial solvents leading to the deaths of eight children from leukaemia. The movie's opening half plays to form - Schlichtmann and his besuited scene-stealing cronies (Shalhoub, Macy, Zelijko Ivanek) rattling ethical sabres at the devious co-defendants: lawyers Jerome Facher (Duvall) and William Cheesman (Bruce Norris). Witnesses are uncovered, emotionally charged depositions delivered from bereaved parents (Quinlan is especially prickly) and preliminary legalese bandied about in John Lithgow's voluminous Gothic courtroom.
Then Zallian turns his thriller into a stodgy drama, the case taking a back seat to the trials of Schlichtmann's company's financial woes, the mellow wisdom Duvall beautifully instils in sly old fox Facher and the fudged moral awakening in Schlichtmann's slick suit. You long for the big hammy showdown, all those crafty cross-examinations and lightning quick objections, but it's a no-show - the case is actually dismantled in the complex process of real-life legality. It is a government watchdog that eventually slams the miscreants while Schlichtmann is left broke and spiritually beaten.
Travolta struggles to give the leading man life, never getting to the kernel of his obsession or receiving any emotional outlet to express a troubled mind. Director Zaillian just can't handle the truth, his direction, although magnificently shot by Conrad L. Hall, is stiff and muddled, unable to balance the meaty power of real law with the need for some movie excitement. He ends up relying on the array of top class actors (and a pointlessly oddball Stephen Fry cameo) to develop a human story. And it saps the movie of fizz.
With the dissatisfying fade out, through a half-dozen false promise finales, there comes an insatiable craving for a last ditch surprise witness, the emergence of some concealed evidence, the killer closing speech with all those deviously unorthodox courtroom theatrics. Something satisfyingly cheesy and cliched to take home with you. Zaillian's adherence to the facts is commendable, but sometimes the the truth can be such a bore.
Well-acted and well-intentioned, but as dull and dry as a real-life court case.