Saturday, June 3, 2017

Neglected Gem #101: A Civil Action (1998)

John Travolta in A Civil Action

If you’re a big fan of Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, the 1995 bestseller about how the Boston lawyer Jan Schlichtman forfeited a civil-action suit against two chemical companies, Grace and Beatrice, for polluting the water supply in Woburn, Massachusetts, then the movie adaptation may drive you crazy. The writer-director, Steve Zaillian, takes major liberties with both the narrative and character of Schlichtman (played by John Travolta); he pares down Harr’s long, winding report of the case and shapes it into a melodrama – much as the writers on the TV series The Practice did when they borrowed the story for an arc centered around the firm’s proletarian lawyer, Jimmy Berlutti (Michael Badalucco). But I’m not sure how a filmmaker could remain faithful to Harr’s material and make it dramatic at the same time. The book bogs down in the middle – just as the case itself did – in endless scientific testimony, and it never recovers its momentum. Despite its colorful, complicated hero, who becomes so obsessed with the case that he drives his firm into bankruptcy, A Civil Action is an obstacle course for a moviemaker. Zaillian’s film may bowdlerize its subject in the course of streamlining it, but it’s a snappy, ingeniously crafted piece of rabble-rousing dramaturgy – a cross between a Warner Brothers urban potboiler from the thirties and a meaty thesis picture like Twelve Angry Men, which gives a large cast of talented actors plenty to do.

In the movie, Schlichtman begins as a highly skilled ambulance chaser. (An ingenious opening describes how his expertly calibrated courtroom theatrics in a personal-injury case drive opposing counsel into begging him to accept a two-million-dollar settlement.) His first impulse is to turn down the Woburn plaintiffs when his partner, Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub), votes to take them on. But then he gets seduced. A Civil Action isn’t just the tale of an exploiter who develops a conscience – the undeniable Hollywood hook in Zaillian’s script – but also a portrait of a con artist who falls for his own con. Since Conway is too soft-hearted to tell the Woburn complainants that he can’t help them, rejecting them as other law firms have already done, Jan goes out to meet with them. But on the way home, he’s stopped by a cop for speeding and finds himself a few feet away from the scene of the alleged pollution, and he decides to check it out. There he spots a factory belonging to Beatrice, a company with deep enough pockets to sustain a long, complicated, expensive lawsuit. (Grace is the smaller foundry nearby, still owned and operated by the man who began it, a feisty Yankee named John Riley.) Jan’s new, money-and-publicity-fueled self-righteousness gets a boost when both companies hire large firms to represent them. Schlichtman’s pride as a little guy up against the big boys gets all mixed up with his spirited defense of the local residents whose families have been decimated by cancer against the heartless capitalists. Buoyed by the sentimentality of his own arguments, Jan begins to think of himself as a populist hero. What makes him such a fascinating protagonist – in a rich, grandstanding performance by Travolta – is that he’s both a bullshitter and a tireless campaigner for his clients. Riley (Dan Hedaya) hands over his case to a lawyer named Bill Cheeseman (Bruce Norris), while Beatrice hires the expensive firm of Hale Dorr, whose senior litigator, Jerry Facher (Robert Duvall), a legendary courtroom presence who spends most of his time these days teaching law at Harvard, is going to argue the case. Facher’s expertise and condescension raise the stakes for Schlichtman.

Robert Duvall as Jerry Facher

Superficial as it is, A Civil Action is a sensationally effective large-scaled entertainment. Zaillian manages the tonal shifts (from playful-ironic to somber) with impressive skill, and he’s marvelous with the actors. You cans see here what he must have learned from Spielberg on Schindler’s List, which he adapted. Every episode is shaped to make its point while thrusting one of the actors into the foreground and allowing him to strut his stuff to the greatest advantage. (I use the gender-exclusive pronoun here because the only actress in a major role, Kathleen Quinlan as Anne Anderson, who organizes the complaint against the chemical companies, wallows too much in her gray, mousy character and sticks to one whiny note.) David Thornton has a beautifully judged scene in which his character tells the story of driving his son, stricken with leukemia, to the hospital, only to watch the boy expire in the car on the way. As Schlichtman’s third partner, James Gordon, who oversees the firm’s finances, Wiliam H. Macy is marvelous straight through, but especially when Gordon puts up the deeds to his house and those of his partners for collateral against a loan the firm has to take out to keep the lawsuit going. Hedaya, ideally cast as the obstinate Riley, has a splendid scene on the stand where he trumps Schlichtman with an impassioned defense of his American-dream work ethic. James Gandolfini, as a witness to Riley’s directives about the disputed industrial waste, has several showpiece scenes. John Lithgow gets one, too: he’s the eccentric judge who, playing into Facher’s hands, comes up with a series of hopelessly difficult questions for the jury that will decide whether or not the case goes forward for both companies, and then reacts like a hurt child when Schlichtman protests. With very few lines, Shalhoub manages to create a fully drawn character. And there are lively contributions from Zeljko Ivanek (as another member of Schlichtman’s firm), Stephen Fry (as a geologist in love with the intellectual puzzle of his job – the very stuff that can both confuse a jury and make them almost comatose with boredom), Sydney Pollack (as a senior lawyer in Cheeseman’s firm who plays his Harvard credentials like a winning hand of poker), Ned Eisenberg (as a banker) and Paul Ben-Victor (as one of Riley’s employees). Norris, as Cheeseman, does a nifty job of responding to both Schlichtman’s hot air and Facher’s grinning, tossed-off insults.

Casting Robert Duvall as the crusty veteran Jerry Facher must have seemed almost too obvious, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great idea. He and Travolta, whose personalities are equally outsize and whose styles are as different as those of, say, Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, play their shared scenes like a pair of seasoned vaudevillians. One of the reasons Duvall is such a treat to watch is that he clearly revels in the sheer pleasure of acting. A Civil Action is the kind of movie actors love to appear in because they know the filmmaker is solidly on their side. The audience ought to be, too.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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