A Civil Action * * *

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Director: Steven Zaillian.
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian.
Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, James Gandolfini, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Zeljko Ivanek, Dan Hedaya, Sydney Pollack, Josh Pais, Edward Herrmann, Harry Dean Stanton, Kathy Bates, Stephen Fry.

“Schindler’s List” scribe Steven Zaillian seems to craft meticulous pieces of work. It’s hard to put into words but his films seem to have substance. He doesn’t try to cut corners, which is precisely his downfall here. There’s too much weight that, despite an excellent beggining, it gets bogged down and ultimately hoisted by it’s own petard.

A group of parents, whose children have died via pollution, enlist Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), a hot-shot ambulance chasing lawyer to fight their case against two huge corporations. But Schlichtmann soon realises that he may have met his match in opposing lawyer, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), with defeat possibly spelling financial ruin for him and his firm.

This was only Zaillain’s second film behind the camera and although there’s much to admire, he still has much to learn. The problem he has, is with the pace. It was the same mistake he made later with his star studded “All the Kings Men”. He has amassed an abundance of quality actors fleshed them out with substantial characterisations, yet they don’t get a chance to shine. There is too much legal jargon going on for any of them to leap to the forefront. Duvall and Travolta duel with the viewers delight but the impressive supporting ensemble are wasted. Still, it’s a cut above a John Grisham adaptation and if you don’t mind a bit of legal mumbo jumbo and consider yourself a fan of slow talking legal drama’s, then this will certainly appeal.

Based on a true story and treads a similiar path that “Erin Brockovich” would tread a couple of years later. I’d have to say that the Steven Soderbergh/Julia Roberts film is the better of the two though.

Mark Walker

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