Book Reviews Subscribe Faith-filled Family Links for Learners Ask a Franciscan Editorial Entertainment Watch Saints for Our Lives Contents


A CIVIL ACTION (A-2, PG-13): This is the Era of the Lawyers—as heroes, as significant villains, as knights-errant for good or evil. They engage in our titanic battles. They risk lives, careers, fortunes. They determine truth, who wins, who loses, who gets the money, who inherits the land.

Symptomatic of the times is a film like A Civil Action, in which the most stupefyingly tedious and complicated matters on the judicial calendar become the meat of popular shoot-out melodrama, using words instead of bullets. This John Travolta hit movie offers a kind of mythic showdown of lawyers struggling for their own souls—as well as the soul of America. It's also the essential American story: the eternal combat between big bad capitalism and little-guy victims.

The story is cut from 1980's reality. Families living near a stream in a blue-collar Boston suburb (Woburn) are afflicted by an unusual epidemic of leukemia. When a small firm of personal-injury lawyers discovers that nearby polluters are subsidiaries of major corporations, it goes after the companies with the deep pockets.

The hero, Jay Schlictmann, played by Travolta, is at first in it just for the money. He becomes a hero because it becomes a moral issue for him, a matter of justice, even when he and his reluctant partners have to mortgage everything to keep the case going.

They're the underdogs, and it's David vs. Goliath. The guilt exposed here is criminal neglect and general abuse caused by the power of wealth. Jay sacrifices everything, eventually, for justice. Even more sympathetic and courageous are the workday victims (movingly acted by Kathleen Quinlan and others) who have no choice about their sacrifices.

Young writer-director Steve Zaillian (debut film: Searching for Bobby Fischer) boils Jonathan Harr's huge book down to its heart—the hired-gun skills and tactics of the courtroom pros who bring lawsuits and defend them.

As the folksy veteran legal gunslinger for one of the conglomerates, Robert Duvall is a major challenge for the good guys. Sidney Pollack is also outstanding as a corporate hotshot who pulls class and Harvard-education credentials to intimidate Travolta.

In one of the movie's insightful moments, Duvall and Travolta sit in the courtroom hallway awaiting the verdict, trying to hammer out a settlement. "We're like kings," Duvall says, "deciding the fates of others and counting the money." Exactly. Recommended for youth and adults.


THE THIN RED LINE (A-3, R) is poetic, thoughtful and yet a typically tough end-of-the-century war film. Reclusive genius writer-director Terrence (Days of Heaven) Malick's first movie in 20 years follows a battalion of G.I.'s landing on Japanese-held Guadalcanal in the Pacific in 1942-43, winning several horrendous battles with heavy casualties before shipping out. The familiar motif is "War-is-hell," and the issue is "What did it all mean?"

The nearly three-hour movie focuses on daylight frontal assaults on grassy hills dominated at the crest by stubborn Japanese machine guns. The action is brutally real, comparable to the famous Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan. The camera seems to float up the hills beside and behind the troops, and the anguished aftermath is varied rage and compassion for living enemy soldiers.

A score of characters survive the translation from James Jones's novel, chiefly the gentle, brave nonconformist Pvt. Witt (luminous Jim Caviezel in the role every actor in Hollywood wanted), who argues the mysteries of good/evil and immortality with the valorous but cynical Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) throughout the battle.

Drawling Kentuckian Witt is a natural philosopher of hope who (despite the horror) is struck by the beauty of nature and the innocence of the islanders, constantly explored by Malick's cameras.

Witt has questions but ultimately believes in a better world beyond this one. Welsh believes only in the here and now. Like most movies that speculate about life's meaning, God is silent. Despite some ambiguity, despair seems to win.

Ben Chaplin is riveting as a soldier obsessed (and supported) by memories of his wife. Another key figure is "regular army" Col. Tall (Oscar-level work by Nick Nolte), one of a long line of military madmen in movies. He drives the men up the hill without rest or water, at least partly to serve his own ambition. His dogged foe (played with understandable disbelief by Elias Koteas) is a captain, a lawyer in civilian life, who flat out refuses to lead his men (his symbolic sons) to certain death.

Although famous names (John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack) have fine cameo moments, Red Line is notable less for actors than for images (fast-tracking violence and haunted faces mostly, but also trees, animals, sun) and contemplation: "This great evil,...what seed, what root did it come from?...Does it help the grass to grow and the sun to shine?...Does its darkness grow in me, too?" Dark, lovely, unique war film but not quite satisfying; worth seeing for thoughtful adults.


SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (A-3, R): In this affectionate tribute to the master of all playwrights, young Will Shakespeare, trying to write a dumb commercial-hit comedy and stressed by writer's block, falls for a beautiful aristocrat. He will sadly lose her to an arranged marriage typical of the time. Events intertwine with and clearly inspire his writing of his first great tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. (The movie ends with its debut staging in an early version of the Globe Theatre.)

This is mostly speculation and whimsy by writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, since little is known of Shakespeare's life. But it's a clever concoction, weaving late 16th-century social realities and funny stuff about show biz. Enduring icons of the period range from Elizabeth I (a witty cameo by Judi Dench) to Kit Marlowe and Richard Burbage (who was to play most of the bard's great roles). Best of all, it gives a face and personality (intense, dark-eyed Joseph Fiennes) to the ever-shadowy Shakespeare, who can now become "real" to the movie generation.

Will's love, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), is smitten with the stage—forbidden to females at the time. She costumes herself—not very convincingly—to play Romeo in the potboiler Will is crafting to save the company from bankruptcy and physical threats from creditors. There is much comical rowdiness and gender-disguising typical of Shakespeare. The tragic mood of R&J—and its reflection in Will's and Viola's lives—surges and moves.

The film's value to drama and history students, including sharp commentary on the status of women and moral hypocrisy, needs to be balanced by the bawdiness of the stage folks and the romantic 1990's-ish treatment of the sexual affair. (The bard's Romeo and Juliet were, of course, married and so overwhelmed by exuberance they were not required to make love in front of us to impress us.)

Yet the rich detail and quality of director John (Mrs. Brown) Madden's vision dominate. When in an ironic twist the about-to-leave-forever Viola comes back to save the show, there's not a dry eye among the groundlings (or us). Recommended for mature audiences.


YOU'VE GOT MAIL (A-3, PG): Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks reprise their upbeat strangers-connect romance from Sleepless in Seattle in this slick, enjoyable remake of The Shop Around the Corner, a genteel 1940 Jimmy Stewart movie. The Internet is almost providentially trendy as a place for strangers to meet anonymously; the Manhattan bookstore wars (little shop vs. conglomerate) seem a fresh, relevant context for even a light treatment of literary and human-value conflict.

In the end, however, love is allowed unrealistically to sweep other issues aside. Another note of caution: This is a late 1990's love story. Both principals begin the story with live-in lovers, and their readiness to sneak off to the Net for chummy chats with other partners is not necessarily cute and sympathetic. Satisfactory for mature viewers.


60 MINUTES II (CBS, Wednesdays): The granddaddy of the TV magazine shows remains solid in its much-hyped expansion to a second night. This is true even in a year when there isn't much good to say about the ever-burgeoning mag shows, which are mostly trending to trash items or reality-based soap opera.

The editors tend to pick stories that are "significantly scary" but not common knowledge (Russia's secret plutonium city, kids in danger from anesthetics in dental procedures), strong human interest with a moral dimension (wrongly convicted people in prison, Eurasian children of American G.I.'s) or just plain bizarre but picturesque (young rogue elephants whose behavior is improved when they're put together with adult male role models).

The original 60 Minutes specializes in mature, credible reporters. In its offspring, only the effort to replace Andy Rooney with young Andys (wry, trivial, negative) has been problematic. We suggest the editors listen to radio's All Things Considered, which offers the brightest short essays by an endless supply of undiscovered wits.


QUESTIONS: Michael Jordan seems to be a nice fellow, but why is he treated like a god in the media when he is just a guy with a talent for playing a game, for which he's already been rewarded with an income surpassing that of many small countries?

Why do TV shows always run major credits before an episode starts, making it hard to match actors (especially guest stars) with roles, and other credits at the end in a fast scroll on a half-screen alongside a noisy promo for the show coming up?

Why are all those kids in white running through sunny golden fields in pure joy (it seems like heaven at the very least) because Sprint has cheap long-distance rates on weekends?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ask The Wise Man  | The Bible: Light to My Path  | Book Reviews  | Entertainment Watch
Editorial  | Editor’s Message  | Faith-filled Family  | Links for Learners
Saints for Our Lives  | Web Catholic  | Back Issues

Return to

An Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2016 Copyright