A Civil Action (1999)

D: Steven Zaillian
S: John Travolta, Robert Duvall

Absorbing, mildly unconventional legal drama from Steven Zaillian, based on the true story of how a firm of personal injury attorneys becomes involved in a pollution case. Framed by a cynical, pragmatic voice-over, the film is not the expected generic celebration of the rights of the oppressed. Instead it becomes a rather sombre study of the strengths and weakness of the human factor in the judicial process, exemplified by the way in which John Travolta's character becomes ensnared into taking the case further than he needs to. Initially an unrepentant, manipulative ambulence-chaser, he eventually comes to care about the case. But rather than bring about a redemptive transformation, this lands him only in deeper trouble as the story progresses, until, eventually, the resolution does not even depend on his direct action. This is most unusual for an American film, especially in one directed by a screenwriter, but it works.

There are echoes of the structure and style of The Verdict here, and like that film it is consistently absorbing in its methodical exposition of the negotiations and wrangling which goes on largely unseen by the public before and during the big show that is the public trial. Unlike The Verdict, its approach to the human factor is almost as clinical, and the film gives only momentary insight into character in terms of psychology and emotion. This doesn't ultimately matter, but it is a feature worth being aware of from a potential audience's point of view. It is nonetheless filled with both incidental and important character detail which adds richness to the narrative. Robert Duvall is marvellous as a co-defendant whose seemingly trivial, quiet ritual of sitting alone listening to a portable radio while eating his lunch actually provides the film with its moment of catharsis, proving an unlikely climax. Support from a variety of others including James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, John Lithgow, and William H. Macy is equally effective, again because the screenplay carefully creates vivid characters who may lack psychological depth (insofar as this is demonstrated usually with swathes of motivational dialogue and backstory), but reveal plenty about themselves within the context of individual scenes through their actions alone.

It is still quite a distant film though, and this may not endear it to everyone. There are moments of humour towards the beginning, but it is generally quite grim, and the resolution is deliberately downplayed. It certainly does not give the audience the expected emotional pleasures of the genre, which of course makes it all the more interesting, but requires a different type of engagement on the part of the viewer. Zaillian's decision to cross cut the observations of Travolta's and Duvall's characters outside of the case into the narrative (Travolta through the voice over which turns out to be a letter he is writing and Duvall through lectures he gives at Harvard Law) makes it into more of an essay than an entertainment. Again, this serves the film well enough if you are prepared for it, but it is unexpected in what appears on the surface to fit into so many generic categories.

A Civil Action is, on the whole, a stimulating discussion of legal ethics and personal morality. It allows viewers to examine the American legal system with a relatively unbiased eye. The characters do not fall into conventional categories and the story refuses cosy narrative resolution. The performances are good, the tone is consistent, and the viewer is invited to judge the matter for themselves to a much greater degree than is normal in this type of film. It is not so unorthodox as to completely escape generic familiarity, but then few films do. In a sense, it is best appreciated in relation to others of its ilk, and therefore offers audiences an opportunity to expand their range of expectation. Worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.