A Civil Action

"They came for human drama. We've given them three months of geology lessons," pleads desperate attorney Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) on behalf of his jury. He could be speaking for the audience. Courtroom dramas that favor the courtroom over the drama are always in danger of eye-glazing dullness. And the sad irony is that the more closely filmmakers...read more

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"They came for human drama. We've given them three months of geology lessons," pleads desperate attorney Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) on behalf of his jury. He could be speaking for the audience. Courtroom dramas that favor the courtroom over the

drama are always in danger of eye-glazing dullness. And the sad irony is that the more closely filmmakers try to hew to the truth of legal procedures and protocol, the less compelling the results tend to be. Good and serious intentions abound in Steven Zaillian's very faithful adaptation of

Jonathan Harr's nonfiction best-seller A Civil Action, which chronicles Schlichtmann's eight-year battle with mega-corporations W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods on behalf of a handful of families from Woburn, MA, whose children were poisoned by industrial pollutants in the water.

Schlichtmann, a personal injury lawyer with a history of keeping his eye on the bottom line, gets sucked into the potentially ruinous case, which is clearly (to a lawyer) too complex and expensive to bring to trial, because he thinks he can win a whole lot of money for the families and, not

coincidentally, himself. Schlichtmann is a potentially interesting character, a legal sharpie who deludes himself into thinking he can do well by doing good and ruins just about everyone who believes him. He's a lawyer looking for his soul, in the tradition of rumpled Gene Hackman battling the

heartless auto industry in CLASS ACTION and alcoholic Paul Newman taking on the medical establishment in THE VERDICT, with the bonus that there's a real person behind Travolta's sleek smirk. But Schlichtmann gets lost in the ocean of motions, depositions, surveys, precedents and procedures that

have to be crammed into two hours of screen time. This is a case in which the material really is better served in book form.

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