Based on actual events, “A Civil Action” is director Steven Zaillian’s follow up to the engrossing “Searching For Bobby Fischer”. The all star cast for this “Grisham-esque” film includes John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, Kathleen Quinlan and John Lithgow, along with mentionable cameos from Sydney Pollack, James Gandolfini and Kathy Bates.
The story involves a materialistic and self-obsessed personal injury lawyer who finds “meaning” in a case where eight children in a small town have died of leukemia. The film takes an unexpected turn towards originality where every other “David vs. Goliath-courtroom drama” only strives.
Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) is the lawyer in question. Jan is not written as one would come to expect and this story is no classic yarn of one man’s victory over a “corrupt system”, more closely it is what this “system” can take from one man. Indeed, it is not a tale of winning, but mostly of losing.
The supporting cast is second to none, in fact, as with most star driven vehicles, it is the supporting cast that really makes the film work. While Travolta is passable as Schlichtmann, it is the outstanding work from Duvall, Macy and briefly Tony Shalhoub that drive the story. These characters give credence to a film whose star lacks the charisma to fully carry a narrative that dares go as deep as “action.”
While some of the cliches that one would expect from your run-of-the-mill courtroom drama exist in “A Civil Action”, they do not take away from the intelligently written script, great supporting performances and compelling climax. It succeeds where almost every other courtroom drama in the past has failed.