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Festivale online magazine
A Reel Life film section
Civil Action movie review

A Civil Action

The most interesting fact about this film is the background story. When Jan Schlichtmann agreed to have author Jonathan Harr write a book about an ongoing case, he believed it would chronicle the most spectacular yet in a series of multi-million dollar personal injury verdicts. What Harr witnessed was something quite different.

Movie still, John Travolta in A Civil Action, Festivale film reviews; civilaction2.jpg - 7077 Bytes
John Travolta in A Civil Action

"A courtroom is not the place to look for the truth."
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Schlichtmann (Travolta) enters the film quoting a frightening set of statistics on the value of human life. A man is worth more than a woman, a man in his 'prime' more than an older one. A white man more than any other. A professional more than a worker. And least of all a child. In fact, the ideal client is a white professional man in his late twenties. Well, we all knew that some are more equal than others.

In the opening scenes we watch as a carefully choreographed bit of courtroom pre-trial business takes a settlement from US$1 million to US$2 million. Wow.

And then we see Schlichtmann caught on talk-back radio by a client his company is supposed to be representing, but has been ignoring. A case about a group of dead children. Remember, there's no money in children, although,Schlichtmann says, "I appreciate the theatrical value of several dead children".

And so, Schlichtmann heads off to the little town to meet with the plaintiffs and give them the facts of life. It's here we meet Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan). Did I mention this is B.O.T.S (based on a true story)? So do we see the real Anderson, or a cinematically-enhanced character, who is no reflection of the original? I hope so, because the Anderson in Civil Action, a character who should encourage our sympathy and remind us that this is about real people and real crimes, is the queen bitch of the universe. Seriously. She sulks, she grinds her teeth, she is woeful, demanding, self-involved and arrogantly uncaring of the consequences of her own behaviour - except for a small moment with one of the other characters. In short, she has decided that the death of her child has given her a licence to commit grief, hurting others, forever.

John Travolta, Robert De Niro and John Lithgow in Civil Action; Festivale Film Reviews; civilaction.jpg - 10484 Bytes
John Travolta, Robert De Niro and John Lithgow in Civil Action

In the course of A Civil Action we see something that most of us don't thing about -- the reality of contingency cases. Remember in Class Action? They don't get paid for years, but they didn't really suffer. In A Civil Action the $2.5 million dollars that it cost to mount the film had to be raised by a small group of lawyers. They stopped working on other cases. They sold their pensions, they mortgaged their homes, they applied for every credit card they were offered and reduced their lives and their practice and their office, literally, to rubble. For the case.

And for the client. People were fired. They lost their jobs. People became unemployed, just to pay for Anderson's case. And in the end she all but spat in their faces, "I want an apology" she says. Apology. What the hell is an apology but an ego-salve, a you-were-right. She didn't care about people suffering hardships, she didn't give a damn about issues like preventing tragedies from happening again, no, she just wanted to be bowed to and begged to. Now this may not be what the real plaintiff was like, but this was Anderson-in-the-movie.

The emotional and financial strains of mounting a personal liability case of this kind is made clear in A Civil Action, but it does seem to happen very quickly. The fact that this took place over several years isn't obvious at all.

This is a story of redemption, and the fact that water is involved is perhaps stressed a bit more than is really necessary. As a film, it benefits from the talents of people like Travolta, and Robert Duvall who plays the wily opposing counsel, and the ever-wonderful John Lithgow as the bombastic judge. And Stephen Fry as the environmental specialist, Pinder is worth his screen time. But. This film could be just as powerful on the little screen as the big screen. It doesn't spread itself visually or aurally, and would make an excellent movie of the week. Which doesn't detract from its value, but it may make waiting for the video a valid choice.

Click here to buy films from one of the online stores in Festivale's on-line shopping mallAli Kayn

Stephen Fry also appears in Wilde
John Travolta also appears in The General's Daughter, Michael, Face/Off, Mad City, Primary Colors, Grease, She's So Lovely,
Robert Duvall also appears in The Apostle, Deep Impact,
Due for Australian release April 29, 1999
For credits and official site details, click here.
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Just the facts:

Title: Civil Action (1998)
Written by: Jonathan Harr (book), Steven Zaillian
Directed by: Steven Zaillian
Produced by: Henry J. Golas (associate), Rachel Pfeffer, Robert Redford, Scott Rudin, David Wisnievitz (associate), Steven Zaillian (executive)
Edited by: Wayne Wahrman
Director of Photography: Conrad L. Hall
running time: 115 mins
rating: MA

The Players: Denise Y. Dowse, Robert Duvall, Stephen Fry, James Gandolfini, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, John Travolta, Zeljko Ivanek, Peter Jacobson, Sydney Pollack
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