A Civil Action

A multifaceted misfire from writer-director Steven Zaillian that is especially disappointing as a follow-up to his first feature, Searching for Bobby Fischer, made with many members of that film’s production team. In retrospect, the conceptual coherence of the underrated earlier feature may have been protected by the relative absence of big-name stars. Here one has to contend with both the miscasting of John Travolta as a determined personal-injury attorney and an uneven script that appears to have been mangled by the sort of studio interference that superstars often impose or provoke. This project, based on a best-selling nonfiction book by Jonathan Harr about an attorney locking horns with two corporations over the contaminated water supply of a New England town where several children have died, demands the focus of something like Anatomy of a Murder or The Rainmaker. Instead it suffers from a scattershot approach. An excellent secondary castincluding Robert Duvall, Stephen Fry, Dan Hedaya, and Sydney Pollackisn’t allowed to build momentum, and Travolta’s character is established so poorly that he never functions properly as a through line. The theme remains strong, but the storytelling doesn’t do it justice. With Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, and Kathleen Quinlan. (JR)

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