A Civil Action - rated - TEPID

This film is based on the brilliant book by Jonathan Harr. I saw it in Los Angeles at the end of 1998, and it should be released in Australia soon.

I read the book A Civil Action in 2 days last August, and I only put the book down once. It is one of the best books about legal issues that I've ever read. So I was very aware while watching the film that I'd be evaluating the FILM, not comparing it with the book, and I tried to approach it with fresh eyes.

Still, the first problem I had was the casting of John Travolta. I had pictured Jan Schlictman as more a Jeff Goldblum type: tall, lean, hungry and obsessed - an underdog who'd put himself in the big league by dint of hard work, shrewdness and absolute faith in himself. Instead, we have sleak, slick John Travolta. Still, he did a fair job of portraying a different kind of Jan. But I really think his particular talents and charisma were wasted on a part like that of Jan. And the narration he does is puzzling. It signals to us that this is Jan's story, and yet we never get to know Jan. We see the trappings of his life, but we never understand what he's feeling.

Robert Duvall was just about right as the opposing attorney, Facher. He relied heavily on mannerisms for his performance, but then, the character Facher did seem to be a collection of strange habits and tics. William H Macy was brilliant as Gordon, Schlictmann's accountant, though the significance of this role was not made clear enough - and it is his role that is absolutely critical to the dramatic arc of the book. This is symptomatic of what I see as a major problem with the screenplay, and I'll come back to that problem in a moment.

But to continue with the performances: some of the actors in minor roles were outstanding: Peter Jacobson stood out as a grieving parent and Kathleen Quinlan brought a wonderful dignity to a role that in the book was central, but in the film was more on the margins. Dan Hedaya was also impressive (as always) in his role as one of the businessmen who were responsible for polluting the water table.

For me, what the film lacked was passion. Even the musical score is banal. I like Danny Elfman's music, but I'm afraid he may be over-committed at the moment. He seems to have phoned this score in. And resorting to "Take me To the River" at the end? How do you spell cliché?

The critical thing about the book was that what started out for Schlictmann as purely a commercial proposition, ended as an utter obsession which almost destroyed his life and the lives of his associates. This - and a brilliant unfolding of an immense number of technical details in a lucid and compelling way - are the factors which makes the book a tour de force of suspense and drama. Those critical factors are lacking in the movie.

This is Zaillian's 2nd feature film as director - his first was the intriguing Searching for Bobby Fischer. Visually, I found this film lacking: apart from a wonderfully fresh opening shot of Boston from the harbour, and one absolutely compelling scene which takes place on a freeway in the rain, I didn't find much to admire in the visual mise-en-scène, apart from the lush dark of the interior scenes shot by Gordon Willis.

Here's my analysis of what went wrong with the movie: I think the writer in Zaillian leapt at the challenge of translating such a detailed and technically-based book into an intelligible screenplay, and then got so engrossed that he forgot about giving the film enough heart, enough passion. Realising this as he shot the film, he tried to remedy it using an ending that shoots for feel-good, but rebounds into confusion.