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Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) is a successful Boston lawyer. While preening on a radio talk show, Schlichtmann is publicly embarrassed by a client he didn't know he had. Her name is Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) and her son, and seven others in her immediate neighbourhood, have died. Anderson wants at least repentance from whoever poisoned the water table (the assumed cause). Schlichtmann wants to pass on this "orphan" (a case lawyer's pass on because there is no way to make money) but his partner Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub) has committed the firm. Schlichtmann tries to worm out but something catches his eye and, before you know it, two major companies (W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods) are being sued and Schlichtmann's firm is $2 million in the red.

"Like all stories taken from real life, A Civil Action is full of shades, complex characters who contradict themselves and a bitter sweet, melancholy flavour that comes from the taste of human nature. While I have a minor reservation about the Hollywood-isation of the story (others will see these as valid dramatisation, commercial and presentation issues, such as the all-too familiar big-firm lawyers behaving like amoral bullies), the film offers a great deal of engaging entertainment. I would have liked to see an unknown actor tackle the lead role, not because Travolta is no good at it, but because it would have served the dramatic interests of the film better. The epicentre of the central character’s appeal is his self contradictory nature: he travels from the bottom of the legal food chain to its apex – morally speaking – and this would have been a more moving climb had he been less assured and less of a star. But that aside, the film is a joy of writing and acting, production design is so good it is hardly noticeable, and the issues it canvasses are of considerable relevance, both morally and politically. Zaillian maintains a taut ambiance throughout, and finds a balance between the courtroom action and the life outside."
Andrew L. Urban

"Courtroom dramas have been a staple in American cinemas for decades, and often provide us with major dramas. They are filled with surprise witnesses and infallibly heroic lawyers. Steven Zaillian's A Civil Action breaks through convention, making an engrossing and satisfying drama, that is less about a trial per se, but more about a man's redemption. Jan Schlichtmann begins the film as the kind of oily, manipulative lawyer; by the film's final act, he's a changed man. Yet, the film does not attempt to offer us simplistic and pap solutions to the kinds of issues the character grapples with. Zaillian, directing his first feature since 1993's Searching for Bobby Fischer, takes the audience on a journey that Schlichtmann undergoes, and takes his time with it. This is not a film about your classic heroes and villains, or the infallibility of the main player. A Civil Action brilliantly explores not only Schlichtmann's own redemption, but also the moral ambiguities of civil law, and the amorality of big business. The performances are all exceptional. Travolta has a tough job convincing us of Schlichtmann's metamorphosis, but he pulls it off beautifully, delivering a subtle, intelligent performance that gives us real insight into the character. His main legal opponent is played with meticulous intelligence and craftiness by Robert Duvall, whose crafty, unsentimental opposition is indicative of what the justice system represents. William Macy steals the film as the law firm's accountant, trying to stay afloat, John Lithgow shines as the trial's sardonic judge, and Kathleen Quinlan is perfect as the mother demanding an apology for her dead son. This is a film not to be missed."
Paul Fischer

"Intelligent, powerful and moving, A Civil Action resonates with all the complexities that make us individuals. Firstly, it's a good yarn that isn't all Hollywood gloss. Based on a true story, the script is insightful, concise and satisfying. Much of its appeal comes from the human touches to which we can all relate. The A-list cast is precisely that, a dream-team that offers performances full of nuance, colour, definition and pathos. It's the calibre of such a cast that offers this kind of story the viability of commercial success. John Travolta is at his peak; his every emotion and thought on display. Here is a slick, show-pony lawyer whose conscience is awakened. But it's probably Robert Duvall who steals the thunder as the crafty adversary whose whole demeanor spells 'experience'. Duvall is such a superb craftsman, and the character he creates is so very real, that you feel you know him. The detail he incorporates into his characterisation is subtle but effective. William H. Macy too, is terrific as the financial director whose desperation turns to scratchies and the lottery of chance. 'A court isn't the place to find the truth', we are told. 'Truth can only be found at the bottom of a bottomless pit.' It's easy to get involved by the personal stories – much of the zing comes from how they are handled, and the performances that make them real to us. Handsomely produced and enhanced with a haunting music score by Danny Elfman, A Civil Action is a compelling look at morality, the law and those who work within it. This is the Pandora's Box of courtroom dramas – you'll get more than you bargained for!"
Louise Keller

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CAST: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William Macy, Tony Shalhoub, Zeljko Ivanek, Bruce Norris, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Peter Jacobson, Maria Mara, James Gandolfini, Stephen Fry

DIRECTOR: Steven Zaillian

PRODUCER: Scott Rudin, Robert redford, Rachel Pfeffer

SCRIPT: Steven Zaillian (Based on the book by Jonathan Harr)


EDITOR: Wayne Wahrman ACE

MUSIC: Danny Elfma


RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes



VIDEO RELEASE: November 26, 1999 (To Rent)
May 5, 2000 (To Own; $24.95)


CD Soundtrack
Hollywood Records
Music by Danny Elfman
Available at all record outlets
RRP: $29.95

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