John Travolta in A Civil Action (1998)

Travolta's Courtroom Shuffle

Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta - Face/Off) is handsome, rich and a successful claims lawyer, successful because he knows what cases will make money and what cases won't. But when he decides to take on the case of a group of families who believe their children's leukaemia was caused by their water being poisoned he finds himself going through a transformation as the money no longer matters and getting justice for the families does. But his determination to get justice could be his downfall as it drives him and his firm towards bankruptcy as he finds himself up against a wiley old defence layer in Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall - The Man Who Captured Eichmann) who fears no one.

"A Civil Action" starts well as we entert the world of Jan Schlichtmann the slick claims lawyer who takes on clients on the basis that they will make him and his firm money. It's a really nice performance from John Travolta as a slick, money grabbing and shallow lawyer delivering that smoothness perfectly as well as the cold hearted shallowness when it comes to turning down clients purely on a profit basis. The narration he gives where he explains that certain types of clients are more profitable is just marvellous and is part of the reason why you find yourself tuning into this man and hiw world.

Robert Duvall in A Civil Action (1998)

But after the smart introduction and "A Civil Action" gets to the meat of the story with the 8 dead children thanks to toxic poisoning things go wrong. It's a good storyline with a perfect balance of courtroom drama with the exploratory research as Jan tries to uncover the truth. But the transformation of Jan from focusing on money to someone who is willing to bankrupt himself to get justice is just too quick. There's no real road to Damascus moment where Jan sees that helping the families is more important and so the transformation just doesn't come across as convincing, too much of a jump. This is not helped by Travolta's performance as whilst the slick operator works as a money grabber it doesn't work as a champion of the people, it doesn't make sense.

Despite this it has to be said that the way director Steven Zaillian controls the storyline is pretty good, he restrains himself for going for too many big over the top courtroom scenes preferring to give us well worked office scenes where the lawyers question witnesses for either side. It never gets to the point where you hit the edge of your seat gripped by what will happen, it's not that difficult to guess the outcome, but it keeps you watching even when it almost heads off on being a little too sentimental.

What helps "A Civil Action" remain so good in spite of the confused character of Jan Schlichtmann is that Robert Duvall as Jerome Facher the defence lawyer for Beatrice Foods is on fine form. He seems so comfortable in the role mixing slightly quirky lawyer with the wiley old fox who can switch it on in a split of an eye, not afraid of taking anyone on. In the duels between Jan and Jerome there are no theatrics just very smart banter between a slick operator and a wiley old legal craftsman.

Duvall is not the only actor to give a solid performance as the impressive supporting cast which features Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, James Gandolfini and Stephen Fry all deliver. In particular William H. Macy stands out as accountant James Gordon because it's almost a comical character driven to desperate measures to raise funds as Jan's almost vendetta sends the law firm tumbling into debt, but it never feels forced comedy just moments of light hearted mirth.

What this all boils down to is that "A Civil Action" is a good movie but it suffers because of one major issue and that is the too sudden transformation of Jan Schlichtmann from money grabber to people's champion. Aside from that issue "A Civil Action" does deliver especially with a fine performance from Robert Duvall who gives the movie a level of older statesman class.