A Civil Action is somewhere in between a modestly budgeted Hollywood drama (you know, the kind they don’t make anymore unless it’s for Oscar season) and a wildly passionate–well, not art film, but it’s certainly something else. Steven Zaillian casts the film with a knowing grown-up indie eye (William H. Macy, Dan Hedaya playing a villain almost on par with Blood Simple, and James Gandolfini) but he tells the story in a truly (as truly as possible for the 1990s) filmic fashion. Sure, John Travolta’s reformed ambulance chaser is the film’s main character, but Zaillian concerns himself and the audience with the surrounding characters throughout. Even the film’s antagonist, Robert Duvall, is given some wonderfully engaging material. While Travolta’s lawyer learns, through the process of the film, to value the pursuit for the truth over the cynical dismissal of it, Zaillian never does–the film’s passionate about it’s content, totally sure of all its moves, but all of these moves are precisely calculated for an effect. They’re well-executed, well-conceived, but there’s nothing in A Civil Action I found magical. It’s a true story in that real sense. While Zaillian can do the great comedic bit of the bank manager thinking bankrupt Macy has got a gun, he can’t find a way to lie to the viewer. There’s no wool to A Civil Action–it’s an example of what Hollywood filmmaking has been doing well since 1924 or whatnot. Proof the recipe and casserole dish aren’t broken.
The problem with the film is the ingredients. It’s not a movie. Not a dramatizable film. Zaillian’s apparently not willing to sell out the truth to package it into something consumable. To some degree, he could have made A Civil Action a more satisfying tale about Travolta’s redemptive change, but it’s not about that change. It is a little, but it’s mostly not. He could have made the trial more thrilling, maybe made John Lithgow’s judge a little more treacherous, maybe made Duvall’s lawyer corrupt. Something. The experience of watching the film is incredibly satisfying and filling, but only because of how Zaillian tells his story. For example, he never gives the audience a shot of the redeemed Travolta. Instead, he leaves the audience off-balance, not stumbling, but certainly not on solid ground.
All of the acting in the film is excellent, with Gandolfini probably getting the best role. Macy’s got some good stuff to do, so does Duvall, but it’s really all Gandolfini in terms of depth. Travolta’s performance is a little perplexing–to some extent, he’s doing the Travolta thing (that Travolta used to be able to do), but he’s expanding on it, much in the self-refrential manner of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, but more significant success.
The film’s probably not challenging to watch, but fully appreciating it requires a certain confidence in what Zaillian’s doing. Zaillian doesn’t start doing it right away–he obviously didn’t want moviegoers to get up and leave in droves–but, quite analogously, around the time Travolta accepts the case, the viewer has to accept the film.
Directed by Steven Zaillian; screenplay by Zaillian, based on the book by Jonathan Harr; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Wayne Wahrman; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin, Robert Redford and Rachel Pfeffer; released by Touchstone Pictures.
Starring John Travolta (Jan Schlichtmann), Robert Duvall (Jerome Facher), Tony Shalhoub (Kevin Conway), William H. Macy (James Gordon), Zeljko Ivanek (Bill Crowley), Bruce Norris (William Cheeseman), Kathleen Quinlan (Anne Anderson), Peter Jacobson (Neil Jacobs), Mary Mara (Kathy Boyer), James Gandolfini (Al Love), Stephen Fry (Pinder), John Lithgow (Judge Skinner), Dan Hedaya (John Riley) and Sydney Pollack (Al Eustis).