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Touchstone Home Video presents
A Civil Action (1998)

"The lawyer who shares his client's pain, in my opinion, does his client such a great disservice, he should have his license to practice law taken away. It clouds his judgement, and that's as beneficial to his client as a doctor that recoils from the sight of blood."
- Jan Schlichtman

Review By: Robert Mandel   
Published: April 20, 2000

Stars: John Travolta, Robert Duvall
Other Stars: James Galdofini, John Lithgow, William Macy
Director: Steve Zallian

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language.
Run Time: 01h:52m:00s
Release Date: July 13, 1999
UPC: 717951001917
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

There is something different about A Civil Action. Unlike Coppola's The Rainmaker, which was good in its own right, this a very personal and real drama, much less about the law case that is its frame, than the humanity and truth at its core. In this true story, John Travolta plays Jan Sclichtman, a man that embodies not just all it is to be a lawyer, but a stereotypical personal injury lawyer at that. Although the sexiness of Jan's $1000 designer suits and Porsche Targa is appealing to one's hedonistic side, in the opening sequence narration we become dramatically acquainted with his craft's "calculus of bodily injury," making it quickly understood this is a man with a most repugnant personality.

Led by public embarrassment during a radio call-in show to follow up on a visit to Woburn, a small town outside of Boston where a cluster of eight children have died of Leukemia, Schlichtman immediately tries to put an end to an uncomfortable (and unprofitable) relationship with the parents: "You want an apology, and there is nothing more that I would like to do than to get you that apology, but from who? Who is going to apologize to you and pay me? There has to be a defendant and one with very deep pockets. This is not an inexpensive case to try."

The parents, believing the water supply is contaminated, ask Schlichtman to stop by the river and check out the local factories. "What good would that do?" he retorts. But as if by fate, Schlichtman is stopped for a speeding ticket on a bridge over the river, and, as if drawn to it, discovers that the tannery that may be responsible is a division of Beatrice Foods. "This is a gold mine," he tells his colleagues, thus setting up a battle of David versus Goliath proportions.

Yada, yada, yada, one thinks. But as the evidence mounts and the big boys appear ready to fold and make a settlement offer, Schlichtman has an epiphany that changes the story, the meaning, his life. So, as they stand on the cliff overlooking the Promised Land, Schlichtman, as a great surprise to his partners, makes an about-face from his modus operandi and leads these men to a place where conscience and comfort fight an epic battle.

John Travolta is riveting in his sleaziness and born again in his character's relentless pursuit of his new found convictions. However, even he is outclassed by the underrated but Oscar®-nominated Robert Duvall, as Jerome Facher, the Harvard professor who is Beatrice's calm but wily veteran attorney who appears more interested in the Boston Red Sox than this court case. These two are surrounded by excellent supporting performances by James Galdofini (Al Love), John Lithgow (Judge Walter J. Skinner), and the scene stealing comic relief of William H. Macy (James Gordon).

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreenno - no
Original Aspect Ratioyesno

Image Transfer Review: Buena Vista presents a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 original theatrical aspect ratio. Although, the colors are well rendered, there is evidence of pluming (e.g., Chapter 9, approx. 27 minutes). The print also contains dirt, scratches, and nicks. There is also pixelation and shimmering in several instances throughout the film. Still, once one is hooked into the story much of this becomes secondary.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This disc also comes with a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, which includes yet another nice musical score by Danny Elfman. This movie doesn't call for many surround effects but produces for the few when it does. For instance, when Jan races his Porsche diagonally across the screen and soundstage with a nice sweeping effect. Still, most important, the dialogue is well rendered and easily understood.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 0 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Film Recommendations
Extras Review: This single-sided disc includes chapter selection, additional French language soundtrack, English captions for the hearing impaired, theatrical trailer, film recommendations, and a production featurette with cast and director interview snippets (and two sequences not in the final film).

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

This is a difficult disc to summarize; while I enjoyed the transformation of Jonathon Harr's book by writer/director Steve Zallian (Searching for Bobby Fischer), Buena Vista fumbled when it came to presenting it in the best possible light the DVD format allows. The latter persuades me to judge this one only as an engaging, highly recommended renter.


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