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A Civil Action (1998) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

schlichtmann beatrice john pollution

Principal social theme: environmental issues

Touchstone/Paramount. PG-13 rating. Featuring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Zeljko Ivanek, Bruce Norris, Peter Jacobson, Sydney Pollack, Dan Hedaya, James Gandolfini, Kathy Bates, Howie Carr. Written by Steven Zaillian based on the book by Jonathan Harr. Cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. Edited by Wayne Wahrman. Music by Danny Elfman. Produced by Scott Rudin, Robert Redford, and Rachel Pfeiffer. Directed by Steven Zaillian. Color. 115 minutes.


A Civil Action is a dramatization of a famous lengthy legal case involving water pollution with toxic chemicals and a nearby cluster of leukemia deaths in Woburn, Massachusetts. Based on the book by Jonathan Harr, a journalist who closely followed the actual events, the film portrays how a lawyer sacrificed his thriving practice and career to concentrate on this one particular case. The legal process ended in a technical stalemate with a relatively unimpressive settlement, and the lawyer went bankrupt. Later, he turned his records over to the Environmental Protection Agency, and they eventually undertook the largest environmental cleanup in the history of New England.


The story opens in the early 1980s as flamboyant Boston attorney Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), a personal injury specialist, appears on the Howie Carr radio show to talk about his successful law practice. He receives an on-air phone call from Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) imploring the lawyer to look at her case. She and eight other families believe that a cluster of leukemia cases that affected their families was the result of the polluted water of their community of Woburn. Schlichtmann meets with them, advising that they do not have a plausible case. After receiving a speeding ticket near the Aberjona River, the lawyer notices that two factories bordering the river are owned by major conglomerates: The John J. Riley Tannery by Beatrice Foods and Cryovac Manufacturing by the W. R. Grace Company. He and his five-man law firm decide to take the case and file a major lawsuit claiming the dumping of hazardous waste resulted in wrongful deaths. The two companies are represented by two high-power attorneys, Grace by Arthur Cheeseman and Beatrice by Jerry Facher (Robert Duvall), a colorful eccentric who specializes in dragging things out. Years pass as Schlichtmann prepares the case, taking depositions and gathering the scientific evidence to prove that the two companies, by dumping toxic waste, were responsible for the pollution of the wells used as the town’s water supply. His law firm spends millions of dollars preparing the case, and most of the staff mortgage their own homes to fund the lawsuit. Judge Skinner (John Lithgow) seems hostile to Schlichtmann. Before the trial begins, the two companies meet to discuss a possible settlement with Schlichtmann, but the financial sum he demands is so exorbitant that they walk out of the meeting without making a counteroffer. In court, Facher makes a proposal to divide the case into two parts, first requiring the plaintiffs to prove the companies were responsible for the pollution. Skinner agrees over Schlichtmann’s objections. When this part of the case goes to the jury, Facher, on behalf of Beatrice, offers Schlichtmann a twenty-million dollar settlement on the spot, but Schlichtmann turns him down. The jury then returns finding the Grace Company liable for illegal dumping, but not Beatrice Foods. Facher is delighted as the case against Beatrice is dropped. Time again passes, and the other members of the law firm are becoming desperate. When Schlichtmann is summoned to the headquarters of the Grace Company in New York City, they make a settlement offer of eight million dollars. With this amount, each of the families would receive about four hundred thousand, and the law firm would come close to breaking even. Over Schlichtmann’s objections, the other members of his firm insist he accept the offer. After settling, they decide to break up the firm, leaving Schlichtmann on his own. He opens a small one-room office. Facing personal bankruptcy, Schlichtmann files an appeal on the verdict that released Beatrice from liability because they withheld a report that bolstered the plaintiff’s argument. Unable to pursue the case further, Schlichtmann turns his files over to the Environmental Protection Agency. Closing title cards reveals that the EPA eventually ordered a massive cleanup of the polluted area, and Beatrice Foods and the Grace Company were required to pay for most of the cleanup. Schlichtmann moved to New Jersey, where he becomes involved in another controversial water pollution case in Toms River, New Jersey.


A Civil Action is a well-made and insightful film dealing not only with environmental pollution, but also the archaic legal system in which justice seems to take a backseat to judicial wrangling and one-upmanship. Like the original best-selling book, the screenplay stresses the “David vs. Goliath” aspects of the legal battle of a small law firm against the resources of two huge corporations. Although based closely on facts, there are two significant differences from actual events. There was a third company involved in Schlichtmann’s lawsuit, the Unifirst Corporation, which settled with the plaintiff before the case began. Second, the picture makes it appear that the EPA was not involved until late in the process when Schlichtmann turned over his records to them. In fact, the EPA was involved in the case well before Schlichtmann. They had identified Grace, Beatrice, and Unifirst as being responsible for the pollution. EPA officials believed that Schlichtmann actually delayed the cleanup effort because of his lawsuit, since the companies did not want to cooperate with them while the lawsuit hung over their heads. This certainly undercuts the lawyer’s hero status as depicted in the film. Even sticking to the screen story, however, Schlichtmann also loses luster because of his arrogant self-confidence. He becomes so personally committed to the case that he loses his professional detachment, obvious in his refusal of Facher’s impressive settlement offer of twenty million dollars. A Civil Action must be commended for covering the issue of industrial pollution in an intelligent and coherent way while still remaining entertaining. The cast of characters is colorful, such as the curmudgeon Facher, brilliant played by Robert Duvall, or the slimy tannery operator John J. Riley, played by the talented Dan Hedaya. William H. Macy and Tony Shalhoub are also outstanding as Schlichtmann’s partners, and James Gandolfini shines as Anne Anderson’s neighbor who testifies about the illegal toxic chemical dumping by his employer. John Travolta, of course, holds the film together as the crusading lawyer in a credible reading. A Civil Action manages to include considerable environmental facts in its presentation, how drinking water can be contaminated by trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, and other industrial solvents. Viewers might also note that Robert Redford was one of the film’s producers.

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