Volume 92, Issue 59

Wednesday, January 13, 1999

sleeping with the enemy


Courtroom overrules Travolta and Duvall

Did Nazis bank on the Swiss?

Surviving the Mc-hype

Courtroom overrules Travolta and Duvall

Photo by David James
YOU KNOW, TRAVOLTA HAD THE PART BEFORE SHARON STONE AUDITIONED. John Travolta wants to get the critical leg crossing scene just right in his new movie, A Civil Action.

By Brett Walther

Gazette Writer

He's gone from disco king in Saturday Night Fever to the president of the United States in Primary Colors. It comes as no surprise that in A Civil Action, John Travolta finds the role of attorney well within his capacity as an actor.

A Civil Action is a legal drama torn from the headlines of the early 1980s, when it was discovered that in several American communities, industrial giants had compromised environmental and health standards through the improper disposal of toxic substances. Despite the emotionally charged material, screenwriter and director Steven Zaillian painfully drags the movie out in a way which becomes slow and bland.

The children of Woburn are dying. Leukemia has claimed the lives of 12 young people in the small New England community and all arrows point to the sinister corporately-owned tannery which contaminates the town's ground water with pollutants. The grief-stricken parents of the children demand someone take responsibility for the deaths and enlist the services of famed personal injuries lawyer – not to mention one of Boston's 10 most eligible bachelors – Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta), who helps them pursue their cause.

Rather than focusing on the obvious drama inherent in the deaths of a small town's children, Zaillian's story is about the lawyers who take the case before judge and jury. As a result, the film disappoints as an uninvolving legal battle between the evil corporate empire and the wholesome working-class American family.

The saving grace of the film are the performances from the two lead actors, Travolta and Robert Duvall. As Schlichtmann, Travolta uses his trademark charisma to great effect. However, despite his inherent charm, the character never really comes to life and is quite poorly developed. The audience is left clueless as to whether Schlichtmann's fierce determination in seeing the case to its conclusion is due to his lust for money and celebrity, or due to his (yawn) quest for justice.

Equally enigmatic, but in a somehow more endearing way, is Duvall's portrayal of defense lawyer Jerome Facher. Facher's quirks and unpredictable behaviour are the highlights of every scene in which he appears, which is not altogether surprising given the generally poor characterization of the supporting roles.

The families of the leukemia victims fail to make any impression whatsoever. As Anne Anderson, the sole voice of the Woburn parents, Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13) bears the same tragic expression throughout the picture and is given startlingly little to do except wring her hands and speak softly.

Even Danny Elfman's musical score has been infected with the film's detached approach to the material. His soundtrack for A Civil Action is uncharacteristically dull and uninspired, at one point launching into "The Little Drummer Boy" during a trial scene, despite its inappropriateness.

A lot was expected from Zaillian after winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screen play with Schindler's List. Unfortunately, the script for A Civil Action is devoid of emotion and trudges to an abrupt and unfulfilled conclusion. The only thing preventing the film from being instantly forgettable are the dynamic performances from Duvall and Travolta.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999