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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Movie Review: Steven Zaillian's "The Civil Action"


We live in a world where huge multi-national corporations have more annual income than the entire GDP of many nations. While elected governments can be held responsible for the crimes committed on their behalf in the court of law, how does one compel the MNCs to accept their wrongdoing when they have huge resources to make a mockery of the entire legal process? Steven Zaillian’s The Civil Action is a legal take on the traditional David v. Goliath battle which assures its viewers that there can be a victory beyond defeat. 

The hard bargain that takes place over the worth of an individual's dignity at the beginning of the movie epitomizes the extent to which life has been commoditized in contemporary America. The clearly artificial concern that Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta’s character) shows for his clients in the courtroom, starkly contrasting with his own abundant and luxurious lifestyle, highlights the propensity of the practitioners of the legal profession to use the argument of morality in pursuit of their borderline immoral ends.

It is such frustratingly effective argumentative capability that sums up Jan's outlook towards his work when he says that “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 taken away”. Ignoring the ridiculously meagre measurements of the proverbial box that such an outlook confines the definition of the term 'service' to, one is not surprised to see him almost reject the 'Woburn case' even though it involves the death of eight children - due to the absence of any defendants with deep pockets. Yet, deep pockets emerge from the margins of the case and Schlichtmann, Conway and Gordon Co. begin their work to drill holes in those pockets.

Suddenly, we see a parallel fight emerge. This is a fight beyond that of the plaintiff, the respondent or even the courtroom. This fight is the my-brand-is-better-than-your-brand fight and the name of the two fighters is Harvard and Cornell. Jan refuses to submit to an inferiority complex while practicing law in the backyard of Harvard despite not being its alumni. His reasoning is simple – he sees Harvard alumni as bullies and simply refuses to submit to them.

In deposition after deposition, we hear affected families narrate the manner in which they lost their children, sometimes on their way to the hospital, due to leukaemia caused by the contaminated water in their neighbourhood. Jerome Facher, played by the brilliant Robert Duvall, who represents one of the two corporations implicated in the lawsuit, repeatedly patronizes Jan as if he does not know the law at all. The evening before the settlement talks are to commence, we see a contemplative Travolta sitting in his car near the affected neighbourhood, imagining his clients trying to resuscitate their dead baby on the way to the hospital. Is there an ideological change in his character? Has his pride been hurt? Or has the grief of the victims – brought out in the detailed depositions that they gave narrating their loss – finally stirred something at the core of his heart?

As the chances of his securing a conviction grow thinner and thinner, Schlichtmann continues to be patronized by Fascher with an even blunter worldview than that held by him before. “The courtroom isn't the place to find the truth” Fascher says, “you'd be lucky to find here anything that resembles the truth”. Sitting in the hallway of that court, waiting for the jury to return with the verdict, we finally come to know of Schlichtmann's transformation in five odd words: “Eight children are dead, Jerry”. Your heart skips a beat as you realize that he has broken his only cardinal principal in the profession; he has shared his client's pain.

Often, while following the progress of the case, one gets tangled in the technicalities of the law so much that (s)he forgets that in most cases, it is the lawyers that matter in the courtroom. This movie beautifully brings out this facet of the legal profession through the eventual bankruptcy of Travolta in pursuit of justice. Through his bankruptcy, we are reminded of the tagline of the movie: "Justice has a price".