[Picture of projector]

Laramie Movie Scope:
A Civil Action

A legal drama with a difference

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

January 17, 1999 -- "A Civil Action" looks like a Grisham story, but it is not. It is a legal drama based on a true story about a small town suffering from the effects of polluted drinking water and a lawyer who takes the polluters to court.

This isn't really a courtroom drama, however, because most of the drama takes place outside the courtroom. Instead, what happens is we are taken deep inside the workings of the legal system. We find out about the financial workings of law firms, depositions, motion hearings, legal and scientific research and so on. There are also some surprising twists in the story.

John Travolta stars as a ambulance-chasing lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who is on the fast track to success when he happens across the case with the polluted drinking water. He turns down the case, then decides to take it after all, when he finds out there are some "deep pockets" involved (very wealthy companies who can afford a large cash settlement, of which he gets 40 percent).

Schlichtmann has only a small firm, however, and it costs over $1 million to hire the scientists and do the geological research needed to prove the connection between chemical dumping and the illnesses in the nearby towns. William H. Macy, a very fine actor ("Fargo") plays James Gordon, the accountant who tries to keep the firm financially afloat during the expensive suit. He slowly unravels as the firm gets deeper in debt.

At first Schlichtmann seems to be in it just for the money, but then, he suddenly acquires a conscience. After that he begins to make decisions with his heart instead of his head, decisions which cost the firm more money. This puts him into conflict with Gordon and his partners, including Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub of "The Siege" and "Primary Colors").

This attack of conscience, followed by an unexpected turn of events in the lawsuit, change the course of what seems to be a fairly predictable plot. The story then sets out in a different direction and winds up with an unexpected conclusion.

Robert Duvall, one of the best actors around, plays the cagey and unconventional defense attorney opposing Schlichtmann in the case. The war of wits between them is fun to watch, as are Macy's antics and the frazzled bean-counter. Also good is James Gandolfini as Al Love, a man with a conscience who finally breaks the vow of silence about chemical dumping in the small town. Peter Jacobson, and Kathleen Quinlan are also effective as victims in the case. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 1999 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]