A Civil Action

Year: 1998
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Director: Steve Zaillian
Producer: Scott Rudin/Robert Redford
Writer: Steve Zaillian
Cast: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H Macy, Tony Shalhoub, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, James Gandolfini, Stephen Fry, Dan Hedaya, Sydney Pollack
I watched this movie because I heard it described as the same story as Erin Brockovich, only different.

I also hoped John Travolta could keep the hero mugging to a minimum and it would be a smart legal/procedural thriller, a hope that was satisfied in spades.

A true story like Steven Soderbergh's love letter to the buxom battler, it draws what appears to be a true to life picture of a small, boutique law firm with a good record and financial smarts.

Led by Jan Schlichtman (Travolta), the three-man firm takes on sure things and has built up a good reputation in doing so. But one day Schlichtman offers to drive to a small town asking for help to deflect a would-be case that they have no interest in.

When he meets the parents of children who've died by a poisoned water supply courtesy of the local leather processing factory, Schlichtman finds his conscience. To the movie's enormous credit, it takes every beat of the drama seriously, and Schlichtman's redemption doesn't come in a tearful confessional, it comes by him sitting quietly in his car in a rainstorm, staring out the window and imagining if it was him.

Mostly against the wishes of his colleagues, Schlichtman takes the case on, and goes up against the leather plant and the global multinational corporation that backs them. The case is difficult, expensive and virtually hopeless, and we see the firm whittled down to almost nothing, the partners having mortgaged or sold everything they have trying to carry the case through the system and do the right thing.

That there's no happy ending apart from a brief explanation of the ultimate resolution is the film's other big plus. There's no big last minute turnaround, no tiny detail that changes everything. Schlichtman's insistence - even holding out in the face of settlement offers they could only have dreamed of - bankrupts all three men, and when they lose everything, his friends and colleagues abandon him.

It's all done quietly, honestly, with none of the flashy zing of most Hollywood movies, but with tempered dialogue and effective drama. Master screenwriter Steve Zaillian is as powerful behind the camera as he was writing the script.

The other major factor in the film's success is the characters. From William H Macy's often humourous financial controller trying to pull money out of thin air and Robert Duvall's enigmatic legal counsel to Sydney Pollack's folksy but razor sharp CEO, it's a pleasure to watch such accomplished actors bring such wonderfully realised characters to life.

Head and shoulders above the slightly preachy flaming hairstyle of Erin Brockovich.

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