The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: A Civil Action

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Many lawyer movies are good. Some are great. But which are the best? That’s what I want to find out, so I’m working my way through the ABA’s Top 25 in no particular order. This week, I watched #22…

A Civil Action
1998 dir. Steve Zaillian

You may have seen “A Civil Action” at some point on TV, but you probably only half-remember it. It’s about a high profile class action against soulless corporations poisoning a small town’s drinking water, but it’s not “Erin Brockevich.” The main lawyer is an ambulance chaser who decides to stick up for the little guy, but it’s not “The Verdict,” or “The Rainmaker.” Given its familiar beats and bland title, the easiest way to remember it is probably this: It’s the one with John Travolta.

Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, a slick and cynical personal injury lawyer. Jan sees human suffering as a matter of dollars and cents: a dead child can win a sizeable settlement, but a paralyzed white guy in his 40s is worth even more. He is proud of his callousness. A lawyer who becomes emotionally involved, he says at one point, is like a doctor who gets squeamish around blood.

Lawyer movie aficionados will not be surprised by what comes next. A whale of a case falls into Jan’s lap, and he and his small group of partners set about deposing witnesses, digging up dirt, and playing hardball. Along the way, Jan starts breaking his own rules. He’s representing the families of eight children who have died of leukemia, likely because of toxic dumping at a nearby tannery. He can’t get let the injustice of it go, and his judgment starts getting clouded by a growing conscience.

He’s also got an Achilles heel, which Travolta conveys well: his pride keeps getting in his way. Jan is rich, but he gets no respect from the Harvard boys he’s up against. He can’t stand their elitism, and yet he’s desperate for their approval.

While “A Civil Action” is familiar, it’s also really good! If you’re a fan of the genre, you will find a lot to enjoy here. Travolta is believably smarmy at first and then gradually grows on you. William H. Macy is great as his business manager, as is Robert Duvall as the eccentric counsel for one of the defendants. Tony Shalhoub is underused, but it’s always nice to see him, and James Gandolfini is terrific as a conflicted witness. John Lithgow, Stephen Fry, and Sydney Pollack round out the excellent cast.

And along with the great acting and solid direction, the film offers some real insight into how the justice system works. As Jan explains (in an informative if inelegant running voiceover), the point of most civil cases is not to go to trial. Rather, it’s to scare the other side into coughing up a big settlement, and to do that, you have to spend a lot of money and make it seem like you’re willing to spend a lot more.

That’s a bit depressing, but it’s also quite dramatic. The case plays out like a game of high-stakes poker. Jan knows he has a good hand, but it’s not really about that. It’s all about the size of his pile compared to the other guys’, and how willing he is to gamble it all away.

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