A Civil Action

Director Steven Zaillian does author Jonathan Harr a great injustice with his reductionist film version of Harr's 'A Civil Action'.

Published December 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Why is it that movies about the law almost always look so dark? It's a good bet that if a firm can afford mahogany paneling, it can afford to pay its electric bill. The somber shadowy look has always seemed to imply that there are grave, weighty matters going on here and that, like kids on a school field trip, we should be respectful and pay attention. But it could just as easily be a reflection of the distrust most people feel toward lawyers, the persistent and unfortunate belief that the judicial system is a shark's feeding den. Neither interpretation suits Jonathan Harr's nonfiction book "A Civil Action." Millions of people read Harr's gripping bestseller, but Steven Zaillian may be the only one who didn't understand it. It's not just that Zaillian has simplified the story (it's 500 very detailed pages -- he didn't have much of a choice); it's that he almost wholly ignores Harr's complex portrait of the story's contradictory lawyer hero, Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta), in favor of a clichi that suits the worst caricatures of the profession.

Harr's book tells the story of a lawsuit brought against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace on behalf of a group of residents in the Boston suburb of Woburn (pronounced Woo-burn) in 1982. The families in the lawsuit had all lost a child to leukemia. They were convinced that something in the town's drinking water, which had for years smelled and looked funny to them, was responsible. The odds against so many kids in such a small geographical cluster contracting leukemia certainly suggested that something was up. The plaintiffs found reason to believe that Beatrice and Grace had been dumping chemicals from plants located perilously near two town wells that had been shut down in 1979 after being found to be contaminated with the industrial solvent TCE (trichloroethylene). (Eventually, the evidence against Beatrice and Grace -- the latter indicted for making false statements to the Environmental Protection Agency -- was so overwhelming that they agreed to share the costs of what would be the biggest and most expensive environmental cleanup ever in New England.)

For all the detail Harr brings to this massively complicated story, it never once bogs down or loses clarity. And in the movie, for a while, Zaillian does a creditable job of compressing it. He's particularly effective during the scenes where the witnesses are giving depositions, allowing his cast to sketch lived-in characters in just a few minutes of screen time. As a Woburn resident who worked at one of the plants, James Gandolfini suggests the resentment of a man who suspects he's been a dupe for his bosses for years. When Grace's lawyer, William Cheeseman (Bruce Norris), says that he should tell the truth because then Grace can do the right thing and clean up the site, Gandolfini flashes the sharpster a mean little won't-get-fooled-again smile. And in the role of one of the parents who lost a child, David Thornton carries off a scene that could easily seem a cheap play for the audience's sympathy. He has to relate how his child stopped breathing and died on the way to the hospital, as he pulled to the side of the highway and tried to revive him. The death of a child can be one of the cheapest ways for a movie to put the squeeze on you, but Thornton gives his speech a plain, moving dignity. Zaillian helps him out with a flashback that consists of a single indelible image: a close-up of a car's blinking caution lights in the breakdown lane on a gray, rainy day. It's also to the director's credit that he begins telling the story after the kids have died, thereby resisting the tears he might have wrung from the stories that open Harr's book.

But the simplifications hurt, too. They reduce the story's sense of mounting excitement as Schlictmann discovers more and more evidence that strengthens his case, and as each new discovery intensifies his reckless emotional commitment. Zaillian is working in a mainstream style meant to convey sober seriousness -- Oscar-style, you might call it -- that has none of the narrative command or felicities of craftsmanship we might expect from good, workmanlike mainstream moviemaking. Details whiz by and it's often unclear in the trial scenes just what's at stake in the examination of each witness. And in his portrayal of Schlictmann, Zaillian isn't synthesizing Harr's details, he's playing to the Zeitgeist. As written by Harr, Schlictmann is the easiest type of hero for modern audiences to believe in -- a guy driven to do good by impure motives who winds up nearly undoing everything he accomplishes. He's the type of guy who drives a Porsche and wears custom-made suits, who rents out hotel dining rooms to conduct settlement negotiations, but who also spends so much of his firm's resources preparing the case (while refusing to take any other) that he and the firm go into bankruptcy. He and his partners put their mortgages up for collateral. And all the while, Schlictmann, so outraged by the stonewalling of his opponents and the trial judge's obvious prejudice against him, ignores chances to settle the case and winds up with far less than he could have had for his clients, his firm and himself. In Schlictmann's own mind, he's a crusader against injustice. He resents the way the lawyers from Boston's high-toned Brahmin law firms look down on him, and he has visions of a crippling judgment against Grace and Beatrice, a judgment that will make their guilt unquestionable and humiliate the lawyers defending them. Letting them pay their way out of trouble is anathema to him -- unless the payments hurt. Schlictmann is a guy who, for a tangle of reasons, some of them noble, makes almost all the wrong decisions.

In Zaillian's view, Schlictmann's mistakes are the price he must pay in order to be redeemed. (Yes, folks, it's a redemption movie.) He sets the tone in the opening scene as Schlictmann wheels a paralyzed client into a courtroom and, in full view of the jury and the defense lawyers, solicitously attends to the man, all the while signaling "no deal" to the escalating settlement offers the defense lawyers are nervously scribbling on a sticky pad. They come up with an acceptable figure before opening statements. Zaillian presents this as predatory cynicism, and he does the same thing when Schlictmann agrees to take the Woburn case only after discovering he can go after the deep pockets of Beatrice and Grace. He has turned this maddeningly complicated man into a glorified ambulance chaser. But Zaillian never admits that, unless there's a reasonable hope of getting some money, there's no point in bringing a lawsuit. And though Schlictmann blunders badly by refusing settlement offers, Zaillian doesn't credit the basic notion Schlictmann is working from: that bullies understand only force -- and corporate bullies understand only money. Zaillian plays right into the public's childishness about lawyers (a childishness that the popularity of shows like "Law and Order" and "The Practice," with their stories of the tradeoffs and tough calls of practicing law, may have done much to erode). It's not Travolta's fault that he barely registers in the role. There's nothing for him to do but look alternately preoccupied and guilt-stricken.

Robert Duvall fares much better as Facher, the eccentric, tight-fisted lawyer for Beatrice. In some ways, he's all wrong for the role, too robust-looking to have the whittled, wizened Brahmin hawkishness of the character. But he does more to suggest the dry, arrogant superiority of the institutions Schlictmann is up against than all of cinematographer Conrad Hall's dark-toned shots of courtrooms and law firms: The camera always seems to be taking a view of the proceedings that's either Olympian (hovering in the air) or reverential (low-angle shots that make you wonder if the camera operator was on bended knee). And if movies were baseball, then William H. Macy would be this season's MVP. Macy, who plays the firm's accountant and has to juggle to keep it afloat during the trial, has been a pleasure to watch in everything he's been in recently (including "Pleasantville" and "Psycho," in which he's even better than he is here). He's become one of those character actors who never appears to be acting. He just turns up completely in character, as if he'd been this person his whole life.

In reducing Harr's story to the hubris of one lawyer, Zaillian makes some odd narrative omissions. Harr makes a very strong case that Facher withheld exculpatory evidence from Schlictmann, and that Judge Walter J. Skinner deliberately chose to ignore Facher's misconduct, even to the point of falsely characterizing that withheld evidence as favorable to the defense. We get next to none of that in the film. How in the name of God do you make a movie about a lawsuit in which the corporate defendants are demonstrably guilty and then decide to leave out the details of the corrupt and dishonest actions that aided them? You do it, I think, by glomming on to material, not because you care about it as an individual story, but because you see a chance to preach a moral object lesson. Harr's book works in exactly the opposite way. By staying true to his story, by keeping it about people making difficult choices, he's able to illuminate much larger territory. Zaillian can't be bothered with the legwork; he wants to get right to the closing statements.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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