A Civil Action (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Take the Money and Run


What is it with Boston lawyers lately? The Practice (one of the few TV shows I make a point of watching) sees Beantown shysters in moral anguish if one of them sneezes. Ally McBeal turns them into idiosyncratic goofballs. And now A Civil Action punishes them for finally doing what we always say we want lawyers to do: have a heart.

Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) — pronounced “Slickman,” can you believe it? — is a personal injury lawyer in Boston. He’s rich, successful, and crowned by a prominent magazine as one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. Still he feels the need to defend himself: Of course he cares about his clients, he tells talk-radio listeners. He lies awake at night worrying about the people he represents. But he doesn’t care, not really. Because A Civil Action shows us what happens when he genuinely gets emotionally involved with his clients.
Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan of Event Horizon and Breakdown) pesters him about her problem — all the unexplained cancer deaths, including her son’s, in her small town — but he doesn’t give in and take her case until he discovers that the responsible parties might be a couple of big conglomerates with deep pockets. Despite the fact that in personal-injury law, a dead child is worth the least in terms of a settlement, he understands the “theatrical value of several dead kids” in swaying a jury. He doesn’t care about the pain of these people — he’s still all shark.

But somewhere in the course of his investigation into the polluting of Anne’s town’s water supply, Jan rather inexplicably begins to care. He devotes all the resources of his firm into the investigation. His partners (The Imposters‘ Tony Shalhoub, Pleasantville‘s William H. Macy, and Zeljko Ivanek, probably best known as Roland in the eponymous episode of The X-Files) are getting mighty annoyed that he’s destroying their livelihood. Jan turns down settlement offers from the guilty parties because he’s convinced he can, nay must get more for people so grievously wronged. In this legal game of chicken, he who blinks first loses, and Jan is blinking.

Why he cares all of a sudden almost doesn’t matter, because A Civil Action isn’t so much about Jan’s personal redemption as it is a morality tale for all of us who would hope for a kindly, good-hearted lawyer when faced with an actionable tragedy. Whatever Jan says publicly, he understands the paradox of the uncaring lawyer. A lawyer who has something personally at stake in a case is “like a doctor who recoils at the sight of blood.” When faced with the nightmare that is our legal system, we should want — and Anne should have wanted — a cold-blooded, bottom-feeding, scum-sucking, soulless… well, in short, a lawyer. Not a pal. Not a friend. Not someone who feels your pain.

The story is based on fact, and director Steven Zaillian’s extensive use of natural lighting gives the film a documentary look, all of which gives A Civil Action‘s moral all the more relevance. Lawyers who care too much are not effective lawyers. Look: see what happens when you get what you wish for.

Sharks are ecologically vital creatures. Rats and dung beetles serve necessary purposes. Now, hey, it’s not me equating lawyers with insects that crawl through excrement — I’ve known some perfectly pleasant lawyers (okay, two, and okay, not even in their legal capacities). It’s our society that loves that metaphor. Maybe it bears some re-examination.

share and enjoy