Thanks to the John Grisham Legal Potboiler Adaptation production-line, we're all courtroom drama-literate now. Opulent Officialdom versus The Truth; LA Law attorney-chic; surprise witnesses (each one more surprising than the last) and, of course: "No further questions..." It's not going to break the multiplex bank, but A Civil Action does offer intelligence among the well-oiled conventions.
Travolta's character begins typically cynical and removed, citing a personal-injury claim league table. By the end of the film, this human-auction mentality, while not overcome (as it would in Grisham Land), is put into grim context: it's all about winning as much cash as possible. The truth distracts.
This isn't as dry as it sounds, partly thanks to the script finding room for a vein of black humour, and to some inspired casting: Travolta is slick and upfront, while Duvall is more guarded and fastidious. As the story unfolds, we begin to drool at the prospect of a Heat-like collision of acting stature, which takes its time in coming via a well-written corridor confrontation.
Elsewhere, Quinlan is drab but dignified as the grieving mother; James Gandolfini is superb as an ex-plant worker facing his conscience; and William H Macy, as Travolta's sad and troubled accountant, is the King Of Being Sad And Troubled.
The ending is lazy, and duller events are sometimes over-dramatised. But at least we're dealing with real people in the real world, with real quirks, strengths and weaknesses. Not the soft-focus ciphers of an airport novelist's fantasy.