After stumbling, they continue-anonymous power players in the new culture of life as a movie where a stumble is merely a short new scene.

A CIVIL ACTION

A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.


A Civil Action is a compelling true story that captures American culture at the moment when life itself has become a movie. In our celebrity culture, outrageous behavior is reported not because it is wrong, but because it feeds the fathomless appetite of the nation's daily script. People are living their illusions. They are rarely punished; if punished, they are seldom derailed. Once interrupted, they just move on to the next act. In our fascination with the scripts people live, we no longer hold the players accountable.

The story of Jan Schlichtmann, ambulance chaser, is an absorbing look at that process. Schlichtmann (John Travolta) has built a small and prosperous law firm by wringing tears and big settlements from juries for his clients. Materializing magically at the sites of calamity, he strides down the street in earned arrogance, pressing his business card on victims.

And then he takes on the big boys. Smelling money in a case where the waste disposal practices of W.R. Grace and Co. and Beatrice Foods may have caused the deaths of a cluster of children, he commits the resources of his small firm to a protracted case that might bring the payoff of his dreams.

Backed by the money and power of the giants they serve, the lawyers for Grace and Beatrice can litigate without time limits. They do what they are hired to do: wrap the case so thoroughly in legal intricacies that complexity overwhelms morality. One of them reminds us that "a courtroom is no place to look for the truth."

As Jerome Facher, lead counsel for Beatrice Foods, Robert Duvall creates a chilling portrait of an eccentric master litigator who knows all the tricks. You don't pay this lawyer for research; you pay for the fact that he has already completed the puzzle in his head. John Travolta uses admirable restraint in not presenting Schlichtmann as the hero he isn't. Even when a question of ethics finally pierces his conscience, the thought is still wrapped in money. Under the restrained direction of Steven Zaillian, Duvall, Travolta, and a uniformly strong supporting cast have made a movie that is both complex and disturbing.

The case is about money; no one pretends otherwise. But beyond that, the movie tackles the unpleasant subject of class structure--within society, within corporations, within law firms. The workers of a town count for nothing until they represent huge costs to the corporations. The anonymous executives distance themselves from culpability through their servants, the lawyers. The lawyers, in turn, use the subtleties of their status to intimidate colleagues and adversaries.

It's a money and power cockfight, with the prize going to the richest handlers. The last time I looked, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods were still doing fine. The poisoning of children has not darkened their images. After stumbling, they continue-anonymous power players in the new culture of life as a movie where a stumble is merely a short new scene.


Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 498
Studio : 20th Century Fox
Rating : R
Running time : 2h50m


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