A Civil Action

Stars:  John Travolta, Robert Duvall

This is based on a true story about a hot shot New England personal injury attorney named Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) who took on a high profile wrongful death suit against Beatrice Foods and essentially lost, not only the case, but his law firm, his friends, his house and everything else he owned.

The case revolved around the small community of Woburn where eight children died of leukemia presumably from the illegal dumping of carcinogenic compounds by W.R. Grace, a leather goods company, owed by Beatrice Foods. Schlichtmann saw dollar signs amid very deep pockets and went for the brass ring at the expense of his clients (the families of the eight children) and his own law partners. As Travolta’s character puts it, playing Roulette has better odds than playing at courtroom politics in a convoluted justice system.

Beatrice Foods was not charged and Schlichtmann ended settling out of court for far less than he was being offered by ornery, eccentric Beatrice lawyer, Jerome Facher, brilliantly played by Robert Duvall. The case took years and bankrupt Schlichtmann’s firm and partners.

The film is well paced and there are some brilliant observations about our legal system largely brought forth by Duvall’s character. It really is all about money but it’s gambling at best, how much you have to spend to litigate versus how much you might get. Doesn’t seem fair does it? In this case, Schlichtmann’s firm took the case on contingency hoping to make a killing. It cost them millions to investigate and they were in hock up to their eyeballs.

Travolta is fine as the cocky Schlichtmann who gets religion somewhere down the line and thinks he’s doing it all for the families and less for his own ego. William H. Macy as his partner Gordon, the financial adviser to the firm has some very good scenes as the voice of reason, warning Schlichtmann at every turn. It’s he who ends up mortgaging the partners houses in order to keep the case alive. His desperation is both funny and sad.

It’s particularly irksome, though, to see the families’ disappointment at their final take. ‘Not much of an apology’ as one of them states. She was right, but you actually feel sorrier for the lawyers who lost their careers and livelihoods rather than the families who lost a child.

Lotta says:
An Interesting drama. Nothing new for Travolta, though, he’s good in these roles but I’d like to see more chancy stuff from him right now.