A Civil Action (film)

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A Civil Action
A Civil Action poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Steven Zaillian
Produced by Scott Rudin
Steven Zaillian
David Wisnievitz
Robert Redford
Rachel Pfeffer
David McGiffert
Henry J. Golas
Written by Steven Zaillian
Based on A Civil Action 
by Jonathan Harr
Starring John Travolta
Robert Duvall
James Gandolfini
Dan Hedaya
John Lithgow
William H. Macy
Kathleen Quinlan
Tony Shalhoub
Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography Conrad L. Hall
Edited by Wayne Wahrman
Production
  company
Touchstone Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures (USA)
UIP (International)
Release date(s)
  • December 25, 1998 (1998-12-25)
Running time 115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $75 million
Box office $112,215,759

A Civil Action is a 1998 American drama film directed by Steven Zaillian, starring John Travolta (as plaintiff's attorney Jan Schlichtmann) and Robert Duvall, based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Harr. Both the book and the film are based on a true story of a court case about environmental pollution that took place in Woburn, Massachusetts in the 1980s.

The movie and court case revolve around the issue of trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, and its contamination of a local aquifer. A lawsuit was filed over industrial operations that appeared to have caused fatal cases of leukemia and cancer, as well as a wide variety of other health problems, among the citizens of the town. The case involved is Anne Anderson, et al., v. Cryovac, Inc., et al.. The first reported decision in the case is at 96 F.R.D. 431 (denial of defendants' motion to dismiss).

Duvall was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.

Plot[edit]

Environmental toxins in the city of Woburn, Massachusetts contaminate the area's water supply, and become linked to a number of deaths of neighboring children. Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), a cocky and successful Boston attorney who zips around town in his Porsche, and his small firm of personal injury lawyers are called upon to take legal action against those responsible.

After originally rejecting a seemingly unprofitable case, Jan finds a major environmental issue involving groundwater contamination that has great legal potential and a couple of defendants with deep pockets. The local tanneries could be responsible for several deadly cases of leukemia, but also are the main employers for the area. Jan decides to go forward against two giant corporations (real-life companies Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace and Company) with links to the tanneries, thinking that the case could possibly earn him millions, as well as enhancing his and his firm's already considerable reputations.

Bringing a class action lawsuit in federal court, Jan represents families who demand a clean-up of the contaminated area and an apology. However, the case develops a life of its own and takes over the lives of Jan and his firm. The lawyers for the tanneries' parent corporations are not easy to intimidate, a judge makes a key ruling against the plaintiffs, and soon Jan and his partners find themselves in a position where their professional and financial survival has been staked on the outcome of the case.

Jan stubbornly declines settlement offers, gradually coming to believe that the case is about more than just the money. He allows his pride to take over, making outrageous demands and deciding that he must win at all costs. Pressures take their toll, with Jan and his partners going deeply into debt. After a lengthy trial, the case is dismissed in favor of Beatrice, Jan having turned down an offer of $20 million while the jury was deliberating. The plaintiffs are forced to accept a settlement with Grace that barely covers the expense involved in trying the case, leaving Jan and his partners broke. The families are deeply disappointed, and Jan's partners no longer wish to work with him and break up the firm. Jan's life is a shambles. He ends up alone, filing for bankruptcy.

In a postscript, a montage of short scenes involving the key characters in the film, combined with on-screen captions, reveals that the Environmental Protection Agency, building on Jan's work on the case, later brought its own enforcement action against the offending companies, forcing them to pay millions to clean up the land and the groundwater. It takes Jan several years to settle his debts, and he now practices environmental law in Boston.

Differences from the book[edit]

The plotline has been greatly simplified from the book, e.g. later findings by the Environmental Protection Agency and its potential consequences that might have allowed the plaintiffs another trial against Beatrice, and which did ultimately lead to a conviction of perjury against John Riley, and improper conduct for Mary Ryan, are referred to only briefly in the epilogue.

The characters of Charles Nesson, Mark Phillips, Rikki Klieman, Teresa Padro and others have been completely removed from the film version of the story, as well as the plot points their characters contribute.

Cast[edit]

Plaintiffs
Defendants
Other significant persons

Reception[edit]

Film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes certified the Film as "Fresh" with 60% of reviews favorable, summarizing the consensus as "intelligent and unconventional."[1] Despite receiving mostly positive reception from critics and with Duvall getting an Oscar nomination, A Civil Action was nowhere near as successful as anticipated with audiences. Its domestic gross was a mere $56 million, well below its $75 million budget. During its original theatrical release A Civil Action was competing with other Christmas season blockbusters including Shakespeare in Love, The Prince of Egypt, You've Got Mail, Stepmom and Patch Adams. The film was successful on limited release.[2]

Music[edit]

The music score was written by Danny Elfman.

Other songs include:

Awards[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]