A Civil Action
After reading Jonathan Harr's bestselling nonfiction book "A CivilAction," you need only opposable thumbs to figure out that turning said book into a movie would be nearly impossible. The case at the center of the story -- a lawsuit against W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods for poisoning the drinking water of Woburn, Massachusetts -- took eight years to resolve.
Nevertheless, Steven ("Searching for Bobby Fischer") Zaillian took on the task. He'd likely tell you that it was the "challenge" that drew him into the project, which is Hollywood doublespeak for "sure thing" -- after all, there's nothing so breezy as dissolving a complex issue into three easy acts, especially when there are a few million avid readers out there who'll probably go see the film whether it's done with real actors or finger puppets.
Thus it makes sense to cast an actor with the talent of a finger puppet to play the lead role of attorney Jan Schlichtmann, which explains how John Travolta got the job. Schlichtmann takes on the case thinking that, as usual, he'll put his ego to work on it and walk away with an easy victory. Unfortunately, things don't quite work out that way: He runs his firm right into the ground and nearly drives his partners (Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy) insane trying to prove the case winnable.
Supposedly, Schlichtmann learns the importance of his humanity by the end of the film. If Travolta didn't have the acting range of an sedated chimp, Zaillian might have succeeded in delineating the gulf between justice and the law. As it is, we get to watch Travolta prance around in an Armani jacket for two hours, turning one man's personal transition into a lesson on why "Welcome Back, Kotter" should still be considered the pinnacle of Travolta's acting career.
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