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Objection overruled

The great attorneys of our time--Tom Cruise, Susan Sarandon, Tom Hanks--must now make room in the firm for a new partner. John Travolta, who in past lives has been a disco king, a hip hit man, and a deep-fried presidential candidate, reinvents himself in A Civil Action as a greedy personal-injury lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann who risks everything on one Byzantine monster of a case and emerges from the hell of it a better man. Unless you're a devoted lawyer basher, it's a fascinating thing to watch. Travolta and director Steven Zaillian (who wrote the screenplay for 1993's Schindler's List) push all the right emotional buttons while revealing the grime and the majesty of the law.

If an ambulance chaser is to be redeemed by conscience, the movie's closing argument goes, he must first suffer. And we must suffer along with him. It is this bond of mutual agony that helps A Civil Action surpass the usual John Grisham-style pulp. It will likely gain more weight in the public eye from the fact that it's all true, more or less--based on a real lawyer and a real case about toxic waste and leukemia in a New England mill town, previously combined in a bestseller by Jonathan Harr. It doesn't hurt, either, that virtually every performance here is picture-perfect.

Travolta's flawed hero is a cocksure go-getter who has put dozens of expensive suits in his closet and a black Porsche in the garage through the cold calculus of his specialty: "Divide dollars and cents neatly into human suffering." But Schlichtmann is an overreacher, it turns out: He pushes his tiny law firm into a hazardous lawsuit against two industrial giants, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace & Co., on behalf of eight families in tiny Woburn, Massachusetts, who believe the leukemia deaths of their children are the result of poisoned drinking water. Each of the two big companies has a stake in a local tannery that back in the '60s dumped carcinogenic solvents.

Financing the vast medical and geological research the case requires themselves, Schlichtmann and his beleaguered partners soon face ruin, and once all their houses are lost and the office furniture has been hauled away, one of them (played by Fargo's William H. Macy) teeters on the comic edge of madness. But Schlichtmann, who wants more than anything to be a big dog on the legal battleground, refuses to compromise. He is as much stirred by conscience as by hubris.

Luckily, we get more to ponder than just his lonely fight: Schlichtmann's witnesses, and his adversaries, are some of the most vivid movie characters of the year. As the downtrodden mother of one of the dead children, Kathleen Quinlan is the portrait of good and right: Her Anne Anderson isn't interested in money; she wants only an apology for negligence. The superb character actor James Gandolfini (Get Shorty) does a beautiful job as a tannery worker haunted by his knowledge of what went wrong at the plant, and actor-director Sydney Pollack does a nice turn as W.R. Grace's ultraslick, ultramanipulative negotiator Al Eustis: The scene in which he gently puts the screws to our hero in New York's Harvard Club is a little masterpiece of comic acting.

Best of all, we behold the great Robert Duvall as the eccentric slyboots who heads the high-powered legal team representing Beatrice. Duvall's Jerome Facher is a rumpled Boston Red Sox fanatic who carries his lunch in his battered briefcase, a man not above pocketing a hard roll or two from the hotel breakfast table. But underestimating him is usually fatal: It is this disarming master strategist who trips up the cocky Schlichtmann--and who provides the film's most pleasurable moments.

Director Zaillian, who made his debut behind the camera with the underrated Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), grasps both the absurdity and the gravity of Schlichtmann's quest. His courtroom, photographed by Academy Award winner Conrad L. Hall, is so darkly and ominously lit that you wonder if justice has any chance at all of seeping in. Zaillian virtually obsesses on shots of glistening water pitchers and water glasses, constantly reminding us of the origins of this huge moral tangle. And his screenplay, adapted from a rather unwieldy book, is Oscar-worthy--every word carefully chosen, every joke and jibe and shock beautifully rendered. Witness the moment when Travolta shoots the moon, extending his demands for multimillions in a breakfast meeting with the other side. His partners are dumbstruck, and their faces show just how far into madness they believe their colleague has sunk.

A Civil Action is not just another lawyer movie, but one of the most striking dramas of the year--salted with dark wit and buoyed by an authentic moral issue. Some may complain that the film gives its wronged plaintiffs short shrift while focusing on their lawyer, but that's a difficult complaint to sustain in this case: As Jane Bryant Quinn once pointed out, after all, lawyers are operators of the toll bridge that anyone in search of justice must pass.

A Civil Action.
Directed and written by Steven Zaillian, from a book by Jonathan Harr. Starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, and Kathleen Quinlan. Opens Friday.

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Bill Gallo

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