Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) is your typical personal-injury lawyer. He begins the film by coldly describing the monetary value of various types of clients. Matter-of-factly, he explains the rules you must follow to win lawsuits. One of those rules is to never, ever, start truly caring about your clients. That is the rule Jan breaks one day, and A Civil Action is a movie about the consequences.
In the small town of Woburn, Massachusetts, several children have died from leukemia, all within a few short years. The parents blame the town's drinking water, which has been found to contain traces of the toxic chemical TCE. Who is the cause of this pollution? All traces point to two local companies...owned by much larger ones with very deep pockets: W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods.
Though at first hesitant, Jan's small firm takes the case out of hopes of a quick, rich settlement. However, when Jan becomes emotionally involved, he dares to do something he never should: take the case to trial. There, he bets his entire firm in his quest to find the truth and to get justice...but is it a gamble he can win?
The best parts of A Civil Action are the nuggets of lawyerly truths spouted by both Jan, and Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), an eccentric elder defense attorney who knows all the rules of the game. Depending on your viewpoint, these details may seem either cynical or realistic... but they certainly are thought-provoking.
At first, the film looks like it might boil down into your typical Grisham-esque legal potboiler. However, the film is a bit more complex than that. Based on an actual case, A Civil Action tries to be more realistic with its depiction of the legal system. But, that leads to the question: does the film sacrifice entertainment for the sake of accuracy?
When looking at the film from the fact that there are no grand cinematic gestures (such as secret witnesses or courtroom brawls), you might conclude that the answer is "yes". But, A Civil Action finds its entertainment in the details of how the legal process actually works, and in the coterie of fine performances that fill the film.
Regarding those performances, the standouts are the always good Duvall, and William H. Macy (as the accountant at Jan's firm who tries in vain to keep the rising costs from becoming overwhelming). Duvall gets the plum role, though. He's a defense lawyer, so you might think at first that he's one of the bad guys...but the film never sinks to that level of simplicity. Instead, he is a fully fleshed out character, and perhaps the only one in the film who knows where everything is heading.
A Civil Action has its faults. At times the film's pacing begins to drag,
and the film's one caricature (a buffoonish defense lawyer) sticks out like
a sore thumb amid the more realistic proceedings. But those only minimally
detract from the film. The insightfulness of A Civil Action combined with
the strong performances therein make this one worth your time. (Touchstone)