A Civil Action

(Steve Zaillian, USA, 1998)


These days, in the John Grisham era, courtroom dramas come sleek and streamlined.

It scarcely matters whether the theme is the good citizen turned bad or the bad citizen turned good; whether the tale is ‘based on a true story’ or pure fabrication: all that matters is the mechanical, predictable thrill promised and delivered. Once its moves are exhausted, the story instantly disappears from one’s mind.

Within such a conformist genre, A Civil Action is certainly entertaining and impressive. Steven Zaillian – with only his second shot at directing after a career writing for the likes of Spielberg – already has all the slick moves down pat. (His third film would appear eight years later: a new version of All the King’s Men [2006].)

For instance: every character who enters the film receives a sharp little vignette that instantly announces his or her type and trajectory: Jan (John Travolta), the smarmy personal injury lawyer, long overdue for moral redemption; his courtroom nemesis, Jerome (Robert Duvall), who represents a dastardly, capitalist corporation but is fundamentally a nice guy; or Jan’s infinitely self-sacrificing assistant, James (William H. Macy).

American films are only now starting to tackle – rather gingerly – the Herculean struggles of ‘little people’ against the environmental and health crimes of big companies in recent decades. A Civil Action traces a fascinating real-life case, but relegates most of its pain and pathos to a cascade of fleeting, background detail.

The performances are certainly solid and enjoyable, and the narrative is crisply arranged – with Zaillian pulling out all stops in the punctuating montage sequences that leap around in time.

Yet, one longs for something really surprising, shocking or perverse to happen, as the characters inch along their respective paths to good or evil.

Alas, Hollywood wisdom decrees that such a deviation would only spoil the package.

© Adrian Martin April 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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