Director: Steven Zaillian
Writer: Steve Zaillian
Cinematographer: Conrad Hall
by Tory Maddox
"It's like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as a living, severely-maimed plaintiff. However, if it's a long slow agonizing death, as opposed to a quick drowning or car wreck, the value can rise considerably. A dead adult in his 20s is generally worth less than one who is middle aged. A dead woman less than a dead man. A single adult less than one who's married. Black less than white. Poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down in his prime. And the most imperfect? Well, in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all."
With such an effective intro, I came across the book at a Thrift Store recently, expecting the same exact monologue in the opening chapter. It wasn’t. I don’t recall what it was, other than boring and far less effective; a testament to Zaillian's supreme abilities. I remember a friend near guaranteeing that I'd be hooked from the first few minutes.
The story follows Jan Schlitchman (John Travolta, at the height of his resurgence) who's a personal injury attorney that’s made a killing in Boston, approached by Anne Anerson (Kathleen Quinlan) who’s recently lost her son to a mysterious illness, suspecting that the local tap water had something to do with it. It’s the second time I’ve seen the film, and given all of the news about tap water containing record high amounts of prescription medication, flammable spouts, and devastating droughts the whole story took on a new feel.
This 90s film has a powerhouse cast - William H. Macy (playing financial adviser James Gordon), Tony Shalhoub (as attorney Kevin Conway), Sydney Pollack in a brief role, playing a pompous and arrogant executive/former Harvard grad, and, of course, Robert Duvall who puts on one of his greatest performances as Defense Attorney Jerry Facher.
It’s Duvall in particular who I remember the most from the film. Rarely is such a charismatic and likable character cast into such a nasty role. Throughout the film, with the wonderfully subtle, yet thick bite of his, we’re not really sure whether Facher actually knows that his client is wrong; if he’s so confident he’s right that it doesn’t matter; or that it’s all just a game to him, where he knows all of the tricks. For instance, he says he tells his law students to never ask the question ‘why?’ unless they 100% know the answer. It’s a minor moment that speaks volumes to his character. It’s both strategic and something he’s selflessly passed onto the country’s future Ivy League lawyers that will soon command the country.
The editing of this film is equally formidable. Particularly, in one sequence where, after losing in court and having no settlement at all, Jan is hunting down the last chance he has of getting any compensation for the victims by approaching the CEO of the campaign in question - Harvard alum, A.L.. Eustis, who can’t shut up about his alma mater credentials and numerous multi-million dollar yachts. The scene is intercut with Jan’s team back at the office, in which sentences are finished by cutting between the two sequences. Not until twelve years later, when Zallian’s competitor Aaron Sorkin and The Social Network went on to win the Oscar was such a style so well executed.
What’s most interesting is that aside from the $8 million he gets from the CEO - who, while an asshole the entire time, does break down that offering anymore would essentially open the floodgates for similar litigation, whether against his company or others - there’s not really much provided of the $350 million they were attempting to provide the victims. While we're hoping and expecting it to all work out in the end, the case ends. Jan is fired from his firm and forced to start completely from scratch, until the case was revived by the EPA (allegedly playing a much larger role in the book). This is the anti-ending, shifting our expectations, and begging as to whether the studio stepped in and begged for a few title cards to help mitigate the bleakness. It’s a solid film, with great writing, a phenomenal cast, incredible story, awesome direction, and fun editing. We need more from Steve Zaillian.
BELOW: The famous intro
Thoughts on films, old and new
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