January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

John Travolta, Robert Duvall

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“The single greatest liability a lawyer can have is pride,” lectures a partner (Duvall) at a prestigious law firm in Boston. It is a lesson learned only at enormous cost by attorney Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta), the flawed figure at the center of A Civil Action, when he goes up against Duvall in court. The movie, while no slam dunk, is a respectable attempt by director-writer Steven Zaillian (who wrote Schindler’s List) to bring to the screen the true-life legal drama chronicled so engrossingly by author Jonathan Harr in his 1995 non-fiction bestseller of the same name.

Schlichtmann, a flashy personal injury lawyer, hoped to score a big payday by bringing a wrongful-death suit against two giant corporations that he contended had been responsible for contaminating the local drinking water in Woburn, Mass., leading to the deaths of eight children. The case, brought on behalf of the dead kids’ parents, dragged on for eight-plus years, bringing Schlichtmann to the brink of financial and professional ruin. But pride, possibly misplaced, kept the lawyer from quitting.

The imperfections of Travolta’s character keep Action going. It is so rare these days, and so refreshing, to see a major star in a big Hollywood movie playing a character who isn’t wholly sympathetic. Travolta ably shows how the very characteristics that made Schlichtmann successful—unbridled self-confidence and the need to prove himself—also caused his undoing. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Mixed verdict, but Travolta shines

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