It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Civil Action" is like John Grisham for grownups. Watching it, we realize that Grisham's lawyers are romanticized hotshots living in a cowboy universe with John Wayne values. The real world of the law, this movie argues, has less to do with justice than with strategy and doesn't necessarily arrive at truth. The law is about who wins, not about who should win. The movie co-stars John Travolta and Robert Duvall as the leaders of two opposing legal teams. At issue are the deaths by leukemia of 12 children. Travolta's argument is that the deaths were the result of pollution by two large corporation, W.R. Grace and Beatrice. Duvall, working for Beatrice, argues that neither the pollution nor its results can be proven. He also angles to separate Beatrice from its bedmate, Grace, correctly perceiving that the Grace legal strategy is unpromising.
Beatrice and Grace are real companies, and "A Civil Action" is based on Jonathan Harr's nonfiction best seller, which won the National Book Award. But the movie takes fictional liberties, which have been much discussed in the financial press. In particular, Grace lawyer William Cheeseman (Bruce Norris) is said not to be a doofus in real life. For the facts, read the book or study the case; the movie is more concerned with how the law works, and how perhaps the last thing you want is a lawyer who is committed heart and soul to your cause. What you want is a superb technician.
Duvall plays Jerome Facher, brilliant and experienced, who hides his knowledge behind a facade of eccentricity. He knows more or less what is going to happen at every stage of the case. He reads the facts, the witnesses, the court and his opposition. There is a moment at which he offers the plaintiffs a $20 million settlement, and an argument can be made, I think, that in the deepest recesses of his mind he knows it will not be necessary. He makes it in the same spirit that Vegas blackjack tables offer "insurance"--he thinks he'll win, but is guarding the downside. His style is indirection; his carefully nurtured idiosyncrasies conceal his hand.
Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, the head of a small firm of personal injury attorneys who take on cases they believe they can win. Often their clients are too poor to pay legal fees, but Schlichtmann's firm eats the legal costs itself, hoping for a rich slice of an eventual settlement. Essentially, he's gambling with the firm's money every time he accepts a case. That's why he turns down the delegation of parents who tell about the deaths of their children: He doesn't see enough money in it to justify the risk. (The movie has a hard-boiled discussion of how much various victims are "worth." A white male professional struck down in his prime gives the biggest payoff; a dead child is worth the least of all.) From the point of view of his financial well-being, Schlichtmann makes two mistakes. First, he decides the parents have a moral case. Second, he begins to care too much about justice for them and loses his strategic bearings. (Of course all follows from his discovery that the polluters, who he thought were small, shabby local firms, are actually owned by rich corporations.) The movie, written and directed by Steven Zaillian, doesn't simplify the issues and make Schlichtmann into a romantic hero. He's more the kind of guy you refer to affectionately as "that poor sap." We hear what he hears: the emotion in the voice of one of the mothers (Kathleen Quinlan) who asks him to take the case because "all we want is somebody to apologize to us." And the heartrending story of how one of the boys died, told by his father (David Thornton) in details so sad that Schlichtmann is very deeply moved--which is, perhaps, not the best thing for his clients.