At the beginning of A Civil Action, John Travolta's Jan Schlichtmann is one of those personal-injury lawyers who can practically smell the money when somebody walks by in a neck brace. With his gold watch, his gold cufflinks, his gold tie clasp, his gold pen and his black Porsche 928, Schlichtmann--even the name sounds like a punch line--would be little more than a lawyer joke if there weren't an element of pride in all that vanity, the kind of pride that goeth before a fall. Travolta does something very interesting here: He shows us a guy who's both very smart and very dumb, a guy bursting with pride. It's not a star performance, though. We feel we've seen this guy in our own lives--the local fat cat who's learned how to cover up the smellier parts of what he does with expensive cologne, hand-tailored suits. Of course, when you get right down to it, he's just an ambulance chaser, and A Civil Action has him chasing an ambulance that a whole fleet of Porsche 928s couldn't catch. Set in and near Boston, the movie's part legal thriller, part courtroom drama, but if I pointed out that it's not particularly thrilling or dramatic, you might get the wrong impression. Writer-director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) has adapted Jonathan Harr's nonfiction best-seller about a 1986 lawsuit that made the one in Charles Dickens' Bleak House look like a walk in the park. Like Schlichtmann, Zaillian sometimes misses the forest for the trees. But, also like Schlichtmann, he gets a lot of things right while getting a lot of things wrong. Until it peters out in the end, A Civil Action is never less than watchable, and often much more than that. The drinking water in Woburn, Mass., had always looked bad, smelled bad and tasted bad. People in this small industrial town north of Boston would boil it, chill it and mix it with Tang in order to be able to get it down. Then, when a cluster of leukemia cases, many of them youngsters, started appearing in neighborhoods near the Aberjona River, eight Woburn families brought suit against two companies accused of poisoning the water supply. Sounds pretty straightforward, but Anne Anderson, et al. v. W.R. Grace & Co., et al. was anything but straightforward. The two companies, members of the Fortune 500, could afford to litigate until the end of time, and that's how long it might have taken to prove scientific cause-and-effect in a court of law. As an MIT scientist once put it, "For every Ph.D., there is an equal and opposite anti-Ph.D." Harr's book takes us through the labyrinthine thickets of the case, explaining everything as he goes along, but there appears to be no end of it; the truth, as one of the defense lawyers points out, lies at the bottom of a bottomless pit. The movie necessarily compresses all the legal-scientific stuff and, less necessarily, zeroes in on Schlichtmann, the lead lawyer representing the families. When he hears the words "Fortune 500," Schlichtmann's face is like a whirring slot machine, and the movie's at its best when he's contemplating billion-dollar settlements, from which his firm will take a 40% contingency fee (after deducting their expenses). As for the families, who've already lost everything that matters, they just want somebody to apologize for what's happened. Squaring these two goals will bring on disaster. In Love Canal's toxic shadow, A Civil Action could easily have degenerated into "Movie of the Week" theatrics. It doesn't, but Zaillian may have miscalculated by leaving the families so far behind. Kathleen Quinlan plays Anne Anderson, the victim's mother who was finally accused of having water on the brain, so relentless were her efforts to get the case off the ground, but Quinlan isn't given much to do other than look like she hasn't gotten a bit of sleep in the last 10 years. Instead, the movie is turned over to the lawyers--the opposition, led by Robert Duvall's Jerome Facher, a salty old cracker who checked his conscience at the door of the first courtroom he ever entered, many years ago, and Schlichtmann's own partners (William Macy and Tony Shalhoub), who stand by helplessly while he drives the firm into bankruptcy.
Why'd he do it? Why did he insist on taking the case to trial when, as he points out in voice-over narration, "the whole point of lawsuits is to settle"? Harr never really answers those questions in the book, nor does Zaillian in the movie, but the book's Schlichtmann is a hell of a lot more complex than the movie's--a guy with an almost Dostoyevskian need to do both the right and the wrong thing. Zaillian's Schlichtmann (Travolta's Schlichtmann) is an ambulance chaser at best, a surprisingly inept ambulance chaser at worst. And yet, he's still compelling, even moving, trapped as he is in one of those dark courtrooms where Justice doesn't even need her blindfold. All the colors in A Civil Action are dim, as if, like the water in Woburn, they've been bleached with chlorine. We're left to mourn the hazardous waste of it all.