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A CIVIL ACTION

by: Michael Dequina

Every December there emerges a film touted as a major award contender only to come up short. Last year, it was Steven Spielberg's overrated Amistad; this year, it's Steven Zaillian's A Civil Action, which, like the former film, is a technically proficient but ultimately soulless courtroom drama.

A Civil Action, based on Jonathan Harr's fact-based book, is directed by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Zaillian (who also wrote and executive produced), and he displays an effectively economical storytelling style. This is best exemplified in a sequence where Boston personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) meets up with Albert Eustis (Sydney Pollack), a pompous executive with the corporation of W.R. Grace & Co., and recounts the encounter to his legal partners. Instead of showing the encounter and then Jan's account of it, they unfold simultaneously through intercutting, with certain behaviors and statements underscored by Jan's after-the-fact commentary. Another example has Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall, a Golden Globe nominee for his work here), attorney to the large Beatrice Foods corporation, lecturing a class on trial procedure, and each of the bullet points he makes are followed by concrete illustration in the courtroom.

The technical proficiency extends to Travolta, who hits the right dramatic notes as Jan, a hotshot attorney who sees dollar signs in representing a group of Woburn, Massachusetts parents in a complaint against Grace and Beatrice. These eight families claim that the two corporations contaminated the town's drinking water, which led to their children's deaths from leukemia. But somewhere along the way, Jan becomes emotionally involved, making his own dollar signs disappear as the impossible case drains his firm's funds but not the energy of his crusade. The problem is that I never got a true sense of that change. The turning point is supposed to be a scene where Jan is driven to tears while thinking about one of the father's stories, but I did not sense any change following that scene; Jan still seemed like the slickster that he was, and his fierce determination to see the case through still seemed motivated by money and not sentiment.

That can be blamed less on Travolta and more on Zaillian, whose film, like the portrayal of Jan, is slick and collected but lacking an emotional hook. Zaillian seems more interested in getting factual details right than building any real dramatic tension or momentum, and the film never quite reaches takeoff speed, despite the solid work of the acting ensemble (especially William H. Macy as the accountant of Jan's firm). The film's conclusion would be anticlimactic with or without any dramatic urgency leading up to it, but without, it's not only flat, it's a big fizzle.

Perhaps if Zaillian had been less civil and took more action with his material, A Civil Action could have lived up to the award-craving hype. But, as it stands, this TV movie with a big screen cast looks to be an also-ran when the Oscar nominations are announced in February.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)

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