Jan Schlictmann is a once-in-a-lifetime character. A tall, loping figure with an impressive mane of gray hair and a full mustache, he bristles with charisma, commitment and just the faintest hint of larceny. He speaks in rapid-fire stammers, ending every sentence in a voice shrill with passion. He is a true believer, maybe a touch insane, a materialistic jerk who nonetheless gets under your skin by dint of his sheer audacity.
Unfortunately, Jan Schlictmann is absent from "A Civil Action," even though the movie purports to tell the story of the pivotal event of his life. As portrayed by the woefully miscast John Travolta, he has disappeared both in flesh and spirit; as written by Steven Zaillian (best known as the screenwriter of "Schindler's List"), he becomes just another cog in a pretty good legal drama.
But "A Civil Action" shouldn't be pretty good. It should be as great as the book (of the same name) that inspired it. It should crackle with as much tension and outrage and desperation as the events depicted in it. At the very least, it should portray Jan Schlictmann as what he is: a classically tragic figure who loses a noble fight because of his own flaws.
Audiences won't get that from "A Civil Action," even though Zaillian has done an admirable job of compressing Jonathan Harr's detailed, intricately woven -- and true -- legal thriller into a well-paced story. This enormously complex story starts in the 1980s, when Schlictmann, a personal injury lawyer in Boston, took on the case of eight families living in the working-class town of Woburn, Mass.
The families had all lost a child to leukemia, and they were convinced that their diseases had something to do with the city's drinking water. When Schlictmann discovered that two huge corporations -- W.R. Grace & Company and Beatrice Foods -- may well have been responsible for poisoning public wells, he agreed to sue them, thinking he could be in for the biggest payday of his life.
Instead, he embarked on an endless ordeal that would bankrupt his law office, bring him to the brink of personal disaster, try his faith in the justice system and end in a whimper of unbelievable proportions.
"A Civil Action" takes film-goers through the serpentine Woburn case with impressive alacrity and economy, and the movie features some outstanding supporting performances. Robert Duvall, as always, gets the job done as Jerry Facher, the Beatrice Foods lawyer who nibbled Schlictmann to death with objections and wily legal expertise, and William H. Macy actually manages to wring some comedy out of this sad story as Schlictmann's increasingly desperate financial adviser.
Unfortunately, their performances are literally overshadowed: Zaillian, who makes his directorial debut here, could do with more light and fewer heavenly choirs singing the movie to its heart-rending conclusion.
But it's not the production values that are the problem with "A Civil Action." Travolta is the problem. Physically charismatic as ever, he has the vibe down -- he can shoot a cuff with the best -- but this story demands that style be met by substance, and he can't carry it off. As neatly as "A Civil Action" unfolds, film-goers don't ever get the sense of what's at stake -- for the families, the firm, Schlictmann himself -- and without copious hours of back-story, it's Travolta's job to convey that. Instead, he seems intent upon de-saturating the madness from Schlictmann's persona, playing him like one more Grisham suit.
It's too bad, because "A Civil Action" is one of the greatest nonfiction stories ever told, one that shows Grisham's own brand of nonsense for what it is.
If the movie gets people to think twice about their own community environment, hear, hear. If it gets people to read the book, all the better.
But for a film of such fine pedigree and intentions, you'd expect more fire in the belly.
'A Civil Action'
Starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, John Lithgow
Directed by Steven Zaillian
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Rated PG-13 (some strong language)
Running time 118 minutes
Sun score **
Pub Date: 1/08/99