Although it was optioned for movie adaptation six months before its 1995 publication and subsequent conquest of the best-seller list, Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action is hardly ideal Hollywood material. The complicated legal saga of a Woburn, Mass., neighborhood poisoned by toxic waste, the book is gripping, but it turns on ambiguous scientific evidence and ends somewhere short of triumph for the leukemia-ravaged plaintiffs. Writer-director Steven Zaillian has taken an unexpected approach to the problem of condensing Harr’s 500-page narrative into a two-hour film: He’s made it a comedy.
That’s not to say that A Civil Action is comedy as the genre is currently understood in Hollywood, paced by brutal slapstick and sticky with bodily fluids. It’s a comedy of manners which is not altogether inappropriate. Although Zaillian inevitably omits many characters and developments, he assembles his version of the story mostly from incidents and characterizations that can be found in the book. The film depicts the case as fundamentally a clash between well-meaning but swaggeringly overconfident personal-injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta at his slickest) and eccentric, penny-pinching but canny corporate attorney Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall in his avuncular mode). That’s not the essence of Harr’s account, but it is in there somewhere.
Although Facher works for corporate giant Beatrice Foods and Schlichtmann represents eight blue-collar families, the rivalry between the two men is reduced to personal details: Harvard-educated Facher’s battered briefcase and enthusiasm for the Red Sox vs. Cornell-grad upstart Schlichtmann’s expensive Italian suits and new black Porsche. The latter lawyer’s extravagant tastes set up the other source of humor, when the preparations for the Woburn case drive Schlichtmann and his two partners (Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek, in negligible roles) to the brink of bankruptcy. The firm’s financial consultant, James Gordon (William H. Macy, reprising his goofy-loser routine from Fargo), starts juggling credit cards, buying lottery tickets, and cashing in his Krugerrands. As the spectacle of the nouveau riche Schlichtmann’s financial tumble unfolds, it becomes the kind of joke that only Facher or his colleague Cheeseman (Bruce Norris) could appreciate.
The courtroom class struggle is lively and entertaining, thanks in no small part to the assured cast, and only occasionally heavy-handed. (The film could do without such musical signifiers as Captain Beefheart’s “Hard Workin’ Man,” employed as Schlichtmann’s opening theme, and Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River,” deployed in an attempt at musical closure.) For an account of a case in which W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods were accused of contaminating a community’s drinking water with known carcinogens, however, A Civil Action is curiously blithe. “Whoever comes to their senses first loses,” cracks the movie’s Schlichtmann, in an analysis of American tort law that’s not so amusing in the context of a poisoned neighborhood and dead children.
The movie’s lightheartedness is ultimately confounding. Those who have read the book may be astonished at the amiability of Judge Skinner (John Lithgow), whose real-life equivalent sanctioned perjury by Beatrice employees and concealment of evidence by the corporate defense team. Only the working-class characters (notably Kathleen Quinlan as one of Schlichtmann’s clients and Dan Hedaya as the manager of a Beatrice-owned tannery) have any rough edges. Writer-actor Stephen Fry and director Sydney Pollack also appear in distracting bit parts, suggesting that Zaillian believes that celebrity trumps characterization.
Zaillian previously wrote and directed Searching for Bobby Fischer, but the more significant precedent is Schindler’s List, which Zaillian scripted. Like that film, A Civil Action is the story of a hustler who becomes a savior which is why the director had to give the film a considerably more upbeat ending than the book’s: In Hollywood terms, Schlichtmann can’t be a hero if the good guys don’t win. Although the movie is relatively faithful to the true story, the latter is more complex and less reassuring. Zaillian’s tale is about a redeemable man; Harr’s is about an irredeemable system.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor is also the story of a man buffeted by powers beyond his control, and these forces dwarf even W.R. Grace: Chinese emperor Pu Yi is claimed as a toddler by an ancient feudal system, deposed by the rise of democracy, manipulated by Japanese fascism, and remade by Mao’s communism. His breakthrough, achieved in a re-education camp, is finally realizing he’s a nobody.
A nobody is a problematic protagonist for any film, let alone one that now runs almost four hours. The director’s cut, premiering locally at the American Film Institute this week 12 years after the shorter version won nine Oscars, including best picture and best director adds nearly an hour of footage previously unseen in the U.S. The longer movie is not a dramatically different one, but it does seem more resonant, more human, and slightly less distant. Still, The Last Emperor is defined principally by its pageantry. Seeing the film now, it’s clear that it was the blueprint not only for the director’s own Little Buddha but also for Martin Scorsese’s Kundun.
Bertolucci follows Pu Yi from his arrival on the throne in 1908 at age 3 through his banishment from the palace as a young man (now played by John Lone) and his role as the puppet sovereign of the Japanese-created state of Manchukuo to his subsequent imprisonment, first by the Soviets and then by the Chinese. The film opens in 1950, in a cold, blue-gray Manchuria, only to flash back to Beijing’s out-of-time Forbidden City, luxuriant in yellow and red. If the message is that Pu Yi can be happy only when he accepts that he’s ordinary, the film nonetheless glories in extraordinary hues, textures, and vistas. Pu Yi’s cloistered world is vivid and seductive, both infantile and erotica combination embodied by the occasional glimpse of a wet nurse’s bared breast. (According to Bertolucci and Mark Peploe’s script, Pu Yi nursed until he was 13, at which point his forced weaning was no small trauma.)
Pu Yi’s Edwardian education, supervised by a crisp but caring Scottish tutor (Peter O’Toole), is contrasted with his Maoist re-education. (The principles of the two syllabuses sometimes overlap.) The younger Pu Yi is the ruler of a 2,000-year-old empire, but he’s also an outsider trying desperately to fit in (like the protagonist of Bertolucci’s The Conformist). Scampering around the palace as a child, Pu Yi is (like the hero of Little Buddha) an esteemed guest, essential to and yet outside the belief system. Later, Pu Yi attempts to become as Japanese as possible, only to finally defend his Maoist prison warden against the insolent youth of the Cultural Revolution.
Through privilege and deprivation, the constant in Pu Yi’s life is that he is always a prisoner; the film’s motifs include locked doors and vehicles carrying away women his mother, his wet nurse, his wife that Pu Yi can never catch. The Last Emperor is a film by an avowed communist in which communism ultimately triumphs, yet its outlook is fundamentally existential. For all its visual Chinoiserie, the movie is more Western than Eastern, more indebted to Kafka and Dostoevski than to Mao and Confucius.
The additional hour of footage doesn’t change this, but it does make a bit more room for the little guys. Such characters as Pu Yi’s wet nurse and his valet now have a hint of existence outside their service to the emperor, a glimmer of everyday warmth that the chilly central characters lack. (These small roles are more nuanced than the cartoonish characterizations of the Manchukuo period, which features a predatory lesbian Japanese sympathizer and a disconcertingly MGM-musical moment in which Pu Yi’s consort declares her independence by venturing into a rainstorm without an umbrella.) The forces of history still bluster loudly in The Last Emperor, but the longer cut has a few grace notes of humanity.