A film handcuffed by not knowing what approach to take toward its source material : is it a damning indictment of corporate America's environmental negligence, or is it the tragedy of a prideful lawyer's fall from the top of his profession? The film tries to do both and comes across as a half-baked thematic muddle. Part of the problem is John Travolta's empty performance as John Schlictmann -- supposedly he grows a conscience, but he seems to be the same superficial con artist at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. Travolta's performance is made all the more embarassing by the rich and nuanced performances of Robert Duvall as Schlictmann's eccentric but pragmatic opposition and William H. Macy as Schlictmann's firm's increasingly frazzled financial advisor.
Since A Civil Action has Travolta as the lead, it becomes a star vehicle and the other half of the tale, the families of Woburn, gets underserved as a result. Which is a shame since this is where the real heart of the story is -- a father's description of having his son die in the car to the way to the hospital is the most emotionally wrenching scene since The Sweet Hereafter. Despite these major problems, there's a lot to like about the film -- Steve Zaillian has clearly become an immensely accomplished director; even with Travolta's non-performance as a liability, he engrosses the audience at every turn. And his script, whatever its other problems, resists making any of Schlictmann's opponents into cartoon villains.