A Civil Action


A Civil Action is a quiet, sobering tale of gross corporate evils and one lawyer with the stones to stand up to it all. John Travolta can be the skeeviest slimeball, the most affable Everyman, terrifying arch villain or unwavering hero in his work, he’s just that adaptable. His character here is a small time lawyer in a four partner firm that can barely afford a collective pot to piss in, and are in dire need of a case. In a local county, there’s suspicion of a factory dumping lethal toxic waste into the nearby rivers, causing the death, illness and birth defects among many children. Problem is, it’s a ruthlessly expensive case that could bankrupt their entire firm, and the rival lawyer (Robert Duvall) is an Ivy League bigwig who could bury them. Travolta is steadfast though, calmly and methodically tackling one obstacle at a time with compassion for the victims, determination to smoke out the corruption and a reserved charm that puts the film in a relaxed yet pressing groove. The cast here is absolutely unreal as well. Standouts include James Gandolfini and David Thornton in heartbreaking turns as blue collar workers affected by these misdeeds, Dan Hedaya as a malicious perpetrator, William H. Macy and Tony Shaloub as Travolta’s firm partners, Daniel Von Bargen as a belligerent witness, as well as further work from John Lithgow, Harry Dean Stanton, Zelijko Ivanek, Mary Mara, Sydney Pollack, Stephen Fry, Paul Ben Victor, Michael P. Byrne, Josh Pais and more. It’s never too hectic though, despite having so many characters and being a courtroom drama, a sub genre usually steeped in fire and brimstone melodrama. There’s a sad, quiet aura to the proceedings here. The damage is done, and all these people are looking for is a little recognition, compassion and a settlement to ease the strife thrown at them by a very callous and uncaring bunch of people. Travolta is the harbinger of catharsis, a warmhearted man who gets invested in so deep that it isn’t about the money anymore for him, it’s about helping those in need. Powerful, understated stuff. 

-Nate Hill

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