By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
By Zachary Wigon
By Scott Foundas
The case spins out of control. Financing the vast medical and geological research the case requires themselves, Schlichtmann and his beleaguered partners soon face ruin, and once all their houses are lost and the office furniture has been hauled away, one of them (played by Fargo's William H. Macy) teeters on the comic edge of madness. But Schlichtmann, who wants more than anything to be a big dog on the legal battleground, refuses to settle, refuses to compromise. But he is as much stirred by conscience as by hubris, and that is what gives A Civil Action its keen edge.
Luckily, we get more to ponder than just his lonely fight: Schlichtmann's witnesses, and his adversaries, are some of the most vivid movie characters of the year. As the downtrodden mother of one of the dead children, Kathleen Quinlan is the portrait of good and right: Her Anne Anderson isn't interested in money, she wants only an apology for negligence -- from someone. The superb character actor James Gandolfini (Get Shorty) does a beautiful job as a tannery worker haunted by his knowledge of what went wrong at the plant, and actor/director Sydney Pollack does a nice turn as W.R. Grace's ultraslick, ultramanipulative negotiator Al Eustis: The scene in which he gently puts the screws to our hero in New York's Harvard Club is a little masterpiece of comic acting. As the bellowing judge in the case, John Lithgow paints rather broad strokes, but he has his moments.
Best of all we behold the great Robert Duvall as the eccentric slyboots who heads the high-powered legal team representing Beatrice. Duvall's Jerome Facher is a rumpled Boston Red Sox fanatic who carries his lunch in his battered briefcase, a man not above pocketing a hard roll or two from the hotel breakfast table. But underestimating him is usually fatal: It is this disarming master strategist who trips up the cocky Schlichtmann -- and who, for my money, provides the film's most pleasurable moments. Once a brilliant consigliere, always a brilliant consigliere.
Director Zaillian, who made his debut behind the camera with the underrated Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), grasps both the absurdity and the gravity of Schlichtmann's quest. His courtroom, photographed by Academy Award winner Conrad L. Hall, is so darkly and ominously lit that you wonder if justice has any chance at all of seeping in. Zaillian virtually obsesses on shots of glistening water pitchers and water glasses, constantly reminding us of the origins of this huge moral tangle. And his screenplay, adapted from a rather unwieldy book, is Oscar-worthy -- every word carefully chosen, every joke and jibe and shock beautifully rendered. Witness the moment when Travolta, caught up in the moment, shoots the moon, extending his demands for multimillions in a breakfast meeting with the other side. His partners (Macy, Tony Shalhoub, Zeljko Ivanek) are dumbstruck, and their faces show just how far into madness they believe their colleague has sunk.
In summation, A Civil Action is not just another lawyer movie, but rather one of the most striking dramas of the year -- salted with dark wit and buoyed by an authentic moral issue. Some may complain that the film gives its wronged plaintiffs short shrift while focusing on their lawyer, but that's a difficult complaint to sustain in this case: As Jane Bryant Quinn once pointed out, after all, lawyers are operators of the toll bridge that anyone in search of justice must pass. So be it, Counselor Travolta.
-- Bill Gallo
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