A Civil Action

A Civil Action

***

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The law has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with money. The message is plain. White knights go to the wall. "The whole idea is to settle," John Travolta says. He plays a personal injury lawyer who discovers a conscience and comes a cropper. Going for broke can be expensive. Perceived wisdom says that the advocate in designer tailoring, with gun oil smooth delivery, hasn't a chance against the wily old-timer from a blue chip company.

This is a courtroom drama without a body. Well, there are bodies, dead children, poisoned from the effects of contaminated water. Or so it is alleged. Travolta's small city firm take on the case, hoping to cream millions from the multinational that owns the tanning factory, responsible for polluting the river. He is up against a workforce that won't talk, distressed parents traumatised by grief and Robert Duvall on the opposing side, giving the impression of vague fuddiness that speaks volumes for experience and class.

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The film is refreshingly cynical about a profession that, in cinematic terms, expects every lead actor to be Clarence Darrow. "If you're looking for truth," Duvall tells Travolta, "look for it at the bottom of a bottomless pit."

Writer/director Steven Zaillan is never sanctimonious, always tight on the upper lip, condensing an eight year court case into two hours. Travolta is in minimalist mood, playing the part like Clint Eastwood on a long, slow burn. Duvall is set up by Zaillian to give an acting lesson, which he does beautifully. There are fine cameo performances from William H Macy (has he ever been less?), as one of Travolta's colleagues, and James Gandolfini, as a factory worker who has second thoughts. In the end, however, you just don't want to be around lawyers this much.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Courtroom drama about poisoned water.
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Director: Steven Zaillian

Writer: Steven Zaillian based on the book by Johnathon Harr

Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H Macy

Year: 1998

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: US

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