A CIVIL ACTION ***1/2
It's a true story, one that gave birth to a prize-winning book. In the 1970s, in Woburn, Mass., many children died of leukemia. It was a mystery for most people, but not for their parents who identified the culprit: water polluted --better yet, poisoned--by two industrial giants, the Grace Co, and Beatrice Foods.
The Boston firm of Jean Schlichtmann (Travolta), a personal-injury lawyer (aka an ambulance chaser) is doing very well. When the children's families ask him to take their case, Travolta politely declines. On the way to Woburn in his speeding Porsche, he gets a ticket. On the way back,whether by cinematic device or real coincidence-- I cannot tell , but it matters little--comes a second ticket, next to the very location of the toxic dumping.
Is Schlichtmann having an epiphany? Does it dawn on him that a win over the mega-corporations could fill his firm's coffers? Is it a combination of both? Hard to tell. But he takes the case and, in the long run, becomes haunted by it, to the point that he and his associates have to keep borrowing from banks, mortgaging their possessions, homes, insurance policies, and going broke.
The fluid, meticulous but unforced script and direction are by Steven Zaillian, who rightly jumped to fame with his scenario for Schindler's List. His credits also include the writing (from other true-story books) the hospital-based Awakenings, and The Search for Bobby Fisher (Zaillian's first directorial job) about a child who was a chess prodigy.
All those titles, plus the scenario for the fictional Jack the Bear, are of works that move and highlight Zaillian's unquestionable compassion. He moves you without resorting to kitsch, phony dramatics, manipulation of emotions. A Civil Action avoids flamboyance, yet shines by its empathy for human misery. It is also a great thriller-plus-courtroom drama, superior because of its (mostly) low-key approach, its refusal to yield to flashy dramatics, its exceptionally good characterizations, whether full-blown or just sketched in.
At the root of the film we have a David and Goliath story of common working-class people against corporate King Kongs, and of a small law firm versus the infinite funds of Grace and Beatrice. The latter's platoons of lawyers are headed by a powerhouse memorably --if a little too colorfully-- played by Robert Duvall, a prince of foxes.
Every moment counts in the suspenseful depiction of who will outsmart whom, which strings will be pulled. Each deposition is a self-contained, mesmerizing drama. We are made painfully conscious that this David is not the Biblical one; that lawsuits seldom win outright; that the whole procedure is a preamble to settlements; that of fifty appeals, only five win in the courts.
Of course, the film gets its momentum and its thrills from the use of the tricks of the movie trade, but these are in pastels rather than screaming colors. From photography to editing, from framing to continuity, from dialogue or confrontations to the first-rate score by Danny Elfman, the picture remains discreet and unexplosive.
To put the movie in a historical context, we are, in a sense, in postmodern, post-post-post-Frank Capra populist territory of the little people and the Masters of the Land, all framed by the fact-of-life that Justice and the Law are far from synonymous.
Details are chosen with extraordinary care, from repressed tearfulness, to the gradual impoverishment of the smaller law-firm, to the Harvard Club encounter of Travolta and Grace's CEO. He is wonderfully, quirkily played by director Sydney Pollack.
As for Travolta --or should I say Lazarus? -- I'll just say that he continues his extraordinary comeback like a speeding bullet.