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Review: 'A Civil Action' was less vivid on screen than on paper

January 15, 1999|By Jason Myers

Jan Schlichtman (John Travolta) experiences an epiphany as he watches smoke curl up from the polluting pipes of Beatrice Foods. He is about to sue Beatrice and W.R. Grace & Co., factories of each located in Woburn, Mass., where an unsettling number of people - most of them children - have been dying from leukemia.

For now, he stands quietly, with a pensive smile. In "A Civil Action" characters encounter revelation at a frequency even Dionne Warwick and the Psychic Friends could not insure. The film is about attorneys who become benevolent and begin to drink bottled water regularly.

Schlichtman, an attorney so slick even his toes are probably well-oiled, could not have a more Wolfean name if Thomas Wolfe could have written the story himself. But Jonathan Harr wrote the book, and as nonfiction it represents cumulatively and cumbersomely detailed reporting-writing. Harr pulled it off brilliantly; I can't imagine any detail pertinent to the Woburn case which was not in the book, from the character and temperature of the Boston sky on a certain day of trial, to the tie that Schlichtman wears to court. In Harr's graceful and unadorned prose, the details do not bog down the reader - they carry him over into the realm of knowledge.

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Harr's writing was so good, I am afraid, that cinema cannot improve upon it, and the film "A Civil Action" is not nearly so vivid or engrossing as the book.

Steve Zaillian has done a poor job of compressing the facts into a screenplay. He omitted several characters, including one so significant that it removes a little shine from Harr's luminous work.

In the book, Charles Nesson was a pompous law professor at Harvard whom Schlichtman persuaded to join him in pleading the Woburn case. Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), opposing counsel, enters a meeting late one day and apologizes for his tardiness: he had just been given a chair at Harvard. Aghast, Nesson inquires which one, and Facher responds, "brown, black arms." In the movie, the joke stays; but Nesson's gone, and so is the humor.

Perhaps Zaillian is poorly aided by his director - Steve Zaillian. The first 45 minutes of the movie are completely scattershot. The narrative is pithless and the characters are pitiless.

Conrad Hall's cinematography is overladen with greys and browns, and the lighting is so poor that you can barely see the actors, much less their surroundings.

For all the auspices of naturalism, there is something very contrived about "A Civil Action." Courtroom scenes are edited with the caffeinated adrenalin of a music video, as "Little Drummer Boy," recast by composer Danny Elfman, plays on the soundtrack. I have seen more realistic episodes of "Judge Judy."

A book can suggest emotions and explain thoughts in an unpretentious manner. The only way film can appropriate qualities of the internal is through voice-over, and so we have Travolta's voice dispensing wisdom and legal advice.

Zaillian is so afraid of turning his film into a conventional courtroom thriller that he avoids punchy action like it were the plague. The pace of "A Civil Action" is neither slow nor quick - it's vague.

Likewise, the rich exchanges which occurred between partners Schlichtman, Conway (Tony Shalhoub), and Crowley (Zeljko Ivanek) have been defused of their anger and wit. What few words they share are as flat as Travolta's uncharacteristically and unfittingly bland performance. Travolta does not capitalize on the flamboyance of Schlichtman, and all around him are dulled accordingly.

Of their entourage, the only one who holds interest is Jack Gordon (William H. Macy), an accountant put to the test by Schlichtman's extravagant expenditures - on his case, his clothes, his car, and then of course speeding tickets.

Macy plays Gordon sharply at the beginning. By the end, as he's begging a banker for another loan to finance the trial, his hair is barely combed and his self-effacing humor is so cutting that I was more affected by his despair than I was by any of the parents whose children died from drinking and bathing in water contaminated by the two companies being prosecuted.

How uneven a film can be, when the loss of financial security shadows the loss of life. How sad a world it is, when people die as a result of the negligence of companies which continue to produce and prosper.

Take time out of capitalistic cynicism and read a superb, soaring book: "A Civil Action." Save your money on the movie.

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