A Civil Action (1998)

The ultimate stand-off: Vincent Vega vs. Boo Radley. I thought I’d never see the day.

In this drama based on a true story, John Travolta stars as a personal-injury lawyer who sues a major corporation when the drinking water in Woburn, Mass., is found to contain high levels of industrial solvents. Believing the contamination is responsible for the large number of leukemia deaths among the town’s children, the citizens — lead by a woman (Kathleen Quinlan) whose child has died — hire a lawyer to take on the corporate polluters (Robert Duvall).

I think the problem of why this film didn’t do as much for me as many other courtroom dramas, is just because the subject wasn’t as interesting or was lacking the appeal to the story. At least with classics like Anatomy of a Murder, or To Kill a Mockingbird, they touched on such topics as sex, and race that glued us onto the screen, this, well its about water pollution. I don’t find anything intriguing about that, especially not as intriguing for 115 minutes.

The film also doesn’t know how to characterize its main star especially. The film starts out difficult because it gives us this protagonist that is cocky, self-centered, and a person we cannot and do not want to sympathize with. So why would I want to watch a film, hoping that he wins the case? We consistently are wondering who we should cheer for in this film, cause at times it looks like it wants to pit Duvall against Travolta and have em go at it. Instead, it turns out into like a cheesy morality-play, that has no surreal meaning to a case about polluted water.

Despite all these negatives, there still was some good surprisingly to the film. I liked how the film showed us an in-depth look into how these court cases are actually shown. And it’s probably one of the first to actually to highlight the fact that big-ass cases like this, cost a huuuuuuuuuuge amount of money, and honey if you can’t pay that, well then, toodles to your case. Although, I didn’t like our protagonist as much, the film at least shows these two guys as being very big professionals. They never throw low-blows at one another (although I would have loved to see), instead they are just trying to itch out the other one in a game of wit, and smarts when it comes to handling a legal case.

John Travolta is good here, and although is playing a d-bagged kind of character, by the end we start to see his character go through a different set of emotions, such as frustration and guilt, and its all believable. The best here, and saving grace of the film is Robert Duvall. He is absolute great in every scene he has, cause he sometimes plays his character with the villainous traits, but then also, acts like a real human being, with the way he acts in every reaction to Travolta’s character.

Consensus: A Civil Action has problems giving me an interesting case in the beginning, as well as a likable protagonist, but still features some great elements about the case itself, and two great performances.




  1. Your lead convinced me — I’m renting it. Does Boo Radley develop the powers of speech, though? If not, the argument would be shockingly one-sided.

  2. I remember seeing this and thinking it was a powerful and smart movie, but I haven’t thought twice about it since I viewed it (which was upon it’s release) and that says everything in my thoughts. A shame, because I recall a very good performance from JT.

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