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A Civil Action

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In the fact-based legal drama A Civil Action, John Travolta plays a selfish Boston personal-injury lawyer who takes on what he perceives to be a potentially lucrative case, only to see his life fall apart around him. After filing a suit against two companies whose illegal dumping apparently led to an unusual number of health problems and deaths among the children of a small town, Travolta and his successful firm find themselves in both a financial crisis and a crisis of conscience. Do they push toward a settlement tantamount to an admission of guilt and face a team of powerful lawyers led by Robert Duvall, or fall back on their preferred strategy of backing down by taking what money they can and running? Adapting Jonathan Harr's book, Steven Zaillian (Searching For Bobby Fischer) has made a film of two minds. The more interesting side of A Civil Action deals with Travolta and company's pursuit of the facts of the case, as well as the difficult task of disproving stories protected by the companies' deep pockets and code of silence. The less interesting segments, somewhat surprisingly, concern the drama of Travolta's firm: All the inevitable crises arrive at predictable moments and, though well-acted by Travolta and his employees (who include William H. Macy and Tony Shalhoub), they don't reveal anything similar movies have not. Part of the problem may stem from the fact that Travolta hasn't been given a character so much as a type, a flesh-and-blood variation on the heartless lawyer stereotype whose Grinch-like transformation comes off as perfunctory at best. Duvall has some great moments as a self-assured, cryptic veteran, but the film as a whole seems infected by his icy demeanor. A Civil Action never quite finds the fire it needs to be as involving as it clearly wants to be, even if it's always competent and thoroughly watchable.