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Primers on civil law seldom make inspiring movies. A Civil Action is the exception. Based on Jonathan Harr's true best-seller about the suit of eight cancer-stricken families from Woburn, Mass., A Civil Action shows how slowly the wheels of justice turn and how much that slowness costs all concerned. 

Rather than concentrating on the stories of the families, writer and director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer, and screenwriter of Schindler's List) chose to focus on the legal proceedings surrounding the case. His strategy succeeds to a surprising degree. 

John Travolta delivers another great performance as personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann. While Schlichtmann gives his all for his clients, he often seems a lawyer with a cash register for heart. Travolta convincingly portrays Schlichtmann's slow but complete transformation to human being. 

Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) asks Schlictmann to sue whomever is responsible for poisoning the town's drinking water. At first, Schlichtmann turns the afflicted families down because they don't have enough money to make the case worth his while.  

However, as Schlichtmann is driving his Porsche home, he's stopped for speeding. While waiting, he spots the sudsy water in the river below. Schlichtmann's curiosity takes hold, and he tracks the water to its source -- a local tannery. He discovers that the tannery is linked to Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace & Co. Now that he knows there are deep pockets involved, Schlichtmann reconsiders and commits his small firm to the families' case. 

And therein lies the rub. Because the two firms have deep pockets, not only can they pay if found guilty, they can afford to continue the case forever. 

A Civil Action realistically portrays what it takes -- monetarily and emotionally -- to mount a case against two major firms. They outgun Schlichtmann every step of the way. In order to continue the suit, he gradually dismantles his law firm, eventually sending it into bankruptcy. 

Besides showcasing Travolta's skills, A Civil Action gives Robert Duvall a chance to stretch his acting chops as wily Beatrice lawyer Jerome Facher. John Lithgow plays the judge clearly against Schlichtmann. William H. Macey, as one of Schlichtman's partners concerned with the firm's dwindling resources, hits the mark dead on. And James Gandolfini and Dan Hedaya as conscience-stricken worker and tannery owner, respectively, give piercing performances.  

Taken together, cast and story make A Civil Action one hell of a case. 

Joan Fuchsman 

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