True stories rarely ring this true. Based on Jonathan Harr’s 1995 best-seller, A Civil Action chronicles a lawyer’s crusade on behalf of eight families in Woburn, Mass., who accused two companies of contaminating their town’s water in the 1960s and '70s and causing their children to die of leukemia. Early in the movie, there is a shock in seeing the defendants’ logos flash on screen: Beatrice Foods and W. R Grace & Co. For once, the names have not been changed. But A Civil Action is no typical legal thriller. It is a superb investigative drama in the tradition of Silkwood and Lorenzo’s Oil.
Despite the heroic presence of John Travolta, who stars as crusading lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, the action is not pumped up with false jolts, or sweetened with a romantic subplot. The hero, meanwhile, is vain, fallible and less likable than the adversary who outsmarts him—Beatrice Foods attorney Jerome Facher, a sly eccentric played with breathtaking finesse by Robert Duvall. Schlichtmann is a slick personal-injury lawyer who drives a Porsche and exploits human suffering for fame and fortune. But with the Woburn case, he locates his conscience. And to the alarm of his legal team, he bankrupts their firm by rejecting cash settlements and taking the case to trial.
Writer-director Steven Zaillian—who scripted Schindler’s List and Searching for Bobby Fischer, which he also directed— dramatizes this David-and-Goliath story with subtle wit. In one deft sequence, he intercuts Schlichtmann’s missteps in the courtroom with shots of Facher lecturing a law class on the dos and don’ts of cross-examination (“Never ask Why?’ if you don’t know the answer.”) And there is a devastating scene of an Old Money lawyer played by Sydney Pollack patronizing Schlichtmann in the cushy confines of the Harvard Club. William H. Macy adds a note of comic desperation as Schlichtmann’s accountant, who sells off the office furniture and applies for a myriad of credit cards in his battle to keep the company afloat. And Kathleen Quinlan creates heartbreaking empathy with her spare performance as Anne Anderson, a Woburn mother who has lost her son to leukemia. A thriller without a gunshot, a kiss or a chase, A Civil Action is an inspiring violation of Hollywood formula.
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