If you're now at home, as you should be, you're probably wondering what to do with all that commuting time. Wonder no more: watch a middling drama from 1998 starring John Travolta. Even if you're bottled up with kids, it's a great option. All ages will be captivated.
A Civil Action is its name, and what a terrible name it is. Why would you use a legal pun when the alternative meaning is a synonym for 'boring'? Civility promises an absence of conflict, which is anathema to any film, but particularly a courtroom drama. You're left with lawyers agreeing with each other, and who wants to watch that? Particularly if one of them is John Travolta. When he acts like he's sympathising he resembles a well-fed python passing gas. If they loved the pun so much, at least call it An Uncivil Action, or A 'Civil' Action? Objection!
No wonder the film made $54m on a $60m budget. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch this based-on-a-true-story story. Why? Four reasons:
1. It is a very civil action
In keeping with its title, everyone actually is very polite to each other in A Civil Action. No one throws a punch. They rarely raise their voices. At one point Travolta beats up his office furniture, but he cleans it up afterwards. The most discourteous things that happen are:
1. John Travolta tears a $20 bill in half (neatly).
2. Robert Duvall, playing an eccentric attorney, tells a junior lawyer not to disturb him during his lunch break.
3. Duvall's client, a grouchy leather tannery owner, deliberately pours a glass of water on John Travolta's conference table. Yikes! Travolta mops it up and gives him a fresh glass of water.
4. In the closest the film gets to violence, two youths throw firecrackers in a river which causes some pollution there to burst into flames. No-one's hurt, but they run away when they see the leather boss watching them from the opposite bank.
So, not exactly fireworks, apart from the literal fireworks, but that's part of A Civil Action's charm. The film is devoid of the threatening episodes sprinkled across John Grisham adaptations, but by lowering the dramatic register, smaller moments have a greater impact. When Duvall tells off the junior lawyer for handing him John Travolta's lawsuit in the middle of his lunch break, for example, he does it in a clever way which makes you think at first that he's giving the nervous young lawyer some friendly advice, and when you realise he's actually telling the kid off, oh boy, it hits home like a bloody shoot-out! A Civil Action was written (and directed) by screenwriting legend Steven Zaillian (The Irishman, Schindler's List), so it's to be expected that it's full of finely-mounted moments.
2. Robert Duvall
Duvall portrays a lawyer so loaded with quirks it's unsurprising he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
He is obsessed with baseball and listens to it on a transistor radio which he takes with him everywhere. He also loves baseball and takes a baseball with him everywhere, which he also uses tactically to distract other lawyers by bouncing it off walls. He also carries sellotape everywhere, which he uses to mend his old bag in court. He also eats lunch in the back of the file storage room, smuggles pastries out of meetings, collects branded pens, and appears distracted and slovenly but of course is secretly brilliant.
Duvall didn't get the Oscar and I can only assume he needed even more character quirks. He must be kicking himself he didn't unicycle through a scene communicating in morse code.
3. John Travolta
A Civil Action tracks the journey of Travolta's PI lawyer, Jan Schlictmann, a real person, as he becomes obsessed with a case no-one thinks he has a chance of winning. A bunch of small town folk have contracted cancer from the polluted tap water, and they beg Travolta to represent then. He refuses, because it looks hopeless, but then some tiny spark of humanity convinces him to take it.
What's interesting about A Civil Action is that Travolta plays a proud, self-confessed bastard. He's mercenary, heartless, and all about the money, and reckons, as he explains in voiceover, that his lack of empathy is what makes him such a good lawyer. He's ripe to have his ways changed.
We meet him as he wheels a paralysed car crash victim into court, where he immediately emphasises his client's injuries in full view of the jury by holding a cup of water to the man's lips so he can sip it with agonising slowness, and then ostentatiously adjusts the wheelchair's headrest. One of the jurors bursts into tears. Seeing this, the opposing counsel scribbles a note for Travolta which reads, "$1 million. Final offer". Travolta shakes his head, sending his pathetic beta rival back to scribble another offer, which Travolta also rejects, until the sweating attorney scrawls '$1.5m PLEASE?' and holds it up, oozing desperation. Travolta smiles and nods.
I've been in a couple of high stakes negotiations in my time, and while I didn't succeed in persuading Tesco to give me a free Bag for Life, and indeed was prosecuted, I didn't capitulate at the first obstacle like Travolta's foil and admit to the police that my position was untenable. But that's movie magic for you, and what a pleasure it is to watch Travolta's hair plug-thatched cottage of a mug transform from cynical smugness to benevolent smugness over two hours.
4. Amazon Prime
However, the main reason to watch this movie is for the manner in which it is presented on Amazon Prime. (Spoiler alert.)
Five minutes from the end of the movie, Travolta is back in court. It emerges he has lost everything. He let his newfound feelings guide him and he got burnt for it, losing the hopeless case in court. He's lost all his money funding it, he's lost his partners, he's lost his slick practice, he's even lost his house, He's no longer one of Boston's ten most eligible bachelors. He's been forced to abandon his plans to appeal the verdict in the pollution case, because he no longer has the resources to fight it. He has handed his files over to the Environmental Protection Agency in the slim hope that one day it might choose to resurrect the charges against the polluters. He's living in a crummy apartment with no possessions, and we realise he is appearing in court not on behalf of a client, but because he's being declared bankrupt.
As this is going on, the film cuts to Duvall, who bested Travolta on behalf of the evil tannery owner. He is sitting in the back of the filing room, eating lunch and listening to the baseball on his transistor radio. The junior lawyer interrupts and apologetically places another envelope on his desk. Duvall grudgingly picks it up, sees it is from the EPA, and puts it down unopened. The cheers of the crowd on the radio grow to a crescendo, and then - the image freezes for five seconds. On this frame:
I assumed the director had decided that the significance of Duvall's character was such that it should be impressed upon us via a final freeze-frame. But it was jarring, because that gimmick is usually rolled out when a character dies at the end of the movie, a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whereas Duvall was just receiving some correspondence during lunch, and the film wasn't over.
Then the other polluter's lawyer is shown getting an envelope from the EPA too, and as he opens the indictment and says "Jesus", the screen freezes again, on this image:
This is a comparatively minor player. He doesn't have much screen time. He's fine, but his one quirk is that he's called Cheeseman and he gets annoyed when people mispronounce it. Miles from an Oscar nomination. There is no reason to deeply impress his significance upon us. But we watch him frozen, heavily prompted by the stillness of his image to think about him, about what we have learnt about him, and how he must be feeling.
Then Travolta's client picks up a newspaper and sees an article about the EPA taking up the case, and as she stares into the distance it freezes on her as well and the music swells.
I wondered if I was supposed to be detecting something in the sadness in her eyes. I felt nothing. I was beginning to think A Civil Action was asking too much of its audience. We were here for a solid legal drama, not an empathy workout. For a Hollywood entertainment, this had got dangerously avant-garde.
Then we return to Travolta, who gets made bankrupt and, when the judge asks him what it was all for, he smiles sadly and the movie ends. Bang. That's it.
That's it? What the hell was going on? I was left with no catharsis, no idea what happened with the EPA's case, no explanation what happened to the baddies, just a sadly smiling Travolta. It was bleak.
As I sat in the darkness, I decided, no. No. No, I refused to accept it. This made no sense at all. This was not right. Surely a film written and directed by the man behind Clear and Present Danger wouldn't lower itself to ambiguity.
I was a cynical hack who didn't give a shit about anything except the dough - that's what made me so good at my job - but the injustice of the ending of A Civil Action grabbed me and wouldn't let me go. I stopped investigating all other stories to research A Civil Action.
I scoured the net for drafts of the script, but the versions I found predated the shooting script. RollOnFriday asked where my articles were.
I hunted for DVD versions. My pay was reduced to nothing.
I visited online Travolta forums. My partner left me.
I Youtubed it. And made a discovery.
What has happened is that, somehow, Amazon's version of A Civil Action is not showing text which is supposed to appear over each of the three freeze-frames.
Text which explains how the villains received their comeuppance:
How their victims were vindicated:
And, thus, why Travolta gave that small sad smile at the end. It wasn't the defeated smile of a man broken by the amoral universe, but a smile of redemption. He is not, we realise, the cynical huckster he once was, or a loser. He finally cares about his fellow humans. He is spiritually rich.
By not displaying the critical exposition, Amazon had given A Civil Action a baffling and disappointing climax. It was the celluloid equivalent of a novel with the last page covertly ripped out. I didn't know how many thousands of people had watched A Civil Action on Amazon Prime, but they were being left with a very incorrect impression of the film. I wished I could correct them all.
Logistically, that wasn't feasible. It was too late for them. But I could contact Amazon and save the next generation of Civil Actioneers. Amazon's online assistant was confused by the issue and after I explained the issue several times I was disconnected.
I had to accept I had lost. I no longer had the resources to right this wrong. I passed on all my findings to the film's distributor, UIP Pictures, and walked away.
As I sit here alone, having lost everything, I regret nothing. At some point it stopped being about producing content, and became genuine sympathy for A Civil Action and for John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Steven Zaillian, and Thomas H Macy and Kathy Bates who both had supporting roles in A Civil Action, and for all the people who worked on A Civil Action, and all the innocents who watched Amazon's travesty of A Civil Action.
Maybe one day UIP would pick up the matter. There was no more I could do.