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A Civil Action

Rated PG-13-Rating (MPAA) for language.

Reviewed by: W.J. Kimble

Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teens Adults
112 min.
Year of Release:

Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, Zeljko Ivanek, James Gandolfini, Bruce Norris, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Stephen Fry, Dan Hedaya | Director: Steven Zaillian | Released by: Touchstone Pictures

Civil “Of or relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another.”

Action “The series of events and episodes that form the plot of a story or play.”

By this definition, a civil action would mean “a series of events and episodes that reveal the interactions between citizens of a specified society.” “A Civil Action” does just that, but with a unique twist. By revealing the true motives of many who practice law, it actually exposes the corruption of some members of our legal system and the coldness of some of those who are supposed to represent us (the ordinary citizens).

According to law, however, the word “civil” means “Relating to the rights of private individuals and legal proceedings concerning these rights as distinguished from criminal, military, or international regulations or proceedings.” While most of us associate the term “a civil action” in this fashion, Steven Zaillian, the director, gives us a glimpse of the greed and avarice which motivates our judicial advocates. Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), while being interviewed on a radio talk show, tells the listeners that to get the big money, a case shouldn’t ever go to trial. He tells them to forget due process, justice or any feelings for the client. After all, empathy clouds judgment. He says that when it comes to personal injury suits, the goal is to reach an out-of-court settlement because, in a court of law, litigants are “lucky to find anything.that resembles the truth.” So much for defending the rights of private individuals!

Zaillian reveals to us the ego, greed, tenacity and passion that compels the legal team of Schlichtmann, Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub, “Paulie”), Bill Crowley (Zeljko Ivanek, “Courage Under Fire”) and their accountant, James Gordon (William H. Macy, “Wag the Dog”). He also exposes the corruption and the craftiness of corporate litigation through the well financed judicial adversaries, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall, “Deep Impact,” “The Apostle”) and William Cheeseman (Bruce Norris). These men representing Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace respectively. He even reveals the pomposity of some of our judges, who sit on the bench and preside over these cases. Judge Walter J. Skinner (John Lithgow, TV’s “3rd Rock from the Sun”) almost insures the demise of the people’s case in favor of the corporations that are being sued for toxic poisoning of the water supply, which caused a series of leukemia deaths in Woburn, Massachusetts.

“A Civil Action” is based on a true story. In the 1980’s Schlichtmann sued for millions of dollars on behalf of the parents who lost their loved ones to the insensitivity of these corporate giants. In the process, he loses his home, his car, his offices, his practice, and his possessions. Eventually, he loses even the respect and support of his peers. With the help of an inside man and an actual eyewitness, Al Love (James Gandolfini, “Get Shorty”), Schlichtmann finally wins a small reprieve. But the loss is horrendous and John Travolta, in a stunning moment of emotion, reveals the trauma that befell this man of honor and intrigue. The case is only won, when Schlichtmann sends the EPA information that ultimately leads to a criminal investigation and trial.

When did this man of greed become a man of integrity? We are never really told. While Zaillian does hint at it, he chooses to leave it up to our imagination, rather than reveal it directly. Overall, “A Civil Action” is a good movie, and most likely a film to be nominated for “Best Picture of the Year.” We may even see Travolta receive a nomination for “Best Actor” and Duvall for “Best Supporting Actor.” Because of its portrayal of the psychology of litigation and the motivation of those who represent us, however, many will find this movie boring.

“A Civil Action” is heavy on profanity; contains no nudity; and would be best seen by teens (in their high-school years) through adults.

Viewer Comments
I was very disappointed in this movie. While it tells a good story of how a greedy, selfish individual can change into a caring human being, I thought the movie could have been acted and directed better. I did not feel for Jan or for the victims of the water poisoning. I never felt the opportunity to grieve for the children or to grieve for the parents. In my opinion, the mark of a great movie is if you come away wanting to tell others to see it, wanting to see it again and being involved in the story. I felt none of these during this movie that is why I cannot recommend it. It does have some profanity in the beginning but fortunately is not offensive in any other way! My Ratings: [3/2½]
Recommended movie. “A Civil Action” portrays a very worthwhile true story. Inspite of some strong language, this film was mild for today’s typical PG-13 rating. In fact, younger audiences may simply get bored. There is no action in “A Civil Action.” The film’s strengths in my view are a noble story that is rewarding for christian viewing. The drama held my interest. The journey of the main character from the love of money to the value of people was refreshing. This is not best picture material in my view, but is still done well and reveals an important story of suffering and justice. With all of the junk currently at the theatres, “A Civil Action” is a reminder of what good movies are all about.
Todd Adams, age 31
One of the best performances ever given by John Travolta. A far cry from the one he gave in “Primary Colors.” If one enjoys movies about the law… this is one to see. Hopefully, it depicts the truth in which corporate America will do anything to line their pockets at the expense of the general public.
Sid and Brenda Owens, age 52
I must confess that I have not seen this movie yet, but hope to. However, as a Christian attorney, I felt I must respond to the negative tone of the review concerning the legal profession. As we should all know, Hollywood does not deal in reality. Unfortunately, our society (including Christians) allows its perceptions of reality to be influenced by the movies and TV programs produced by Hollywood. The public seizes on stereotypes in these productions and combines them with isolated perversions of justice reported on the news and, as a result, trashes the entire justice system. We should be on guard against these exaggerations. Certainly there are lawyers who fit the negative roles which are routinely played out on TV and in the theaters. However, the reality is much more honorable.
David H. Vance, age 39