A Civil Action (film)

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A Civil Action
A Civil Action poster.jpg
International theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Zaillian
Produced by
Written bySteven Zaillian
Based onA Civil Action
by Jonathan Harr
Music byDanny Elfman
CinematographyConrad L. Hall
Edited byWayne Wahrman
Distributed byBuena Vista Pictures
(North America)
United International Pictures
Release date
  • December 25, 1998 (1998-12-25)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$75 million
Box office$56 million

A Civil Action is a 1998 American legal drama film written and directed by Steven Zaillian and starring John Travolta (as plaintiff's attorney Jan Schlichtmann) and Robert Duvall, that is 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 film 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 city. 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 Oscar for his performance.


Environmental toxicants in the city of Woburn, Massachusetts contaminate the area's water supply, and become linked to a number of deaths of local children. Cocky Boston attorney Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) and his small firm of personal injury lawyers are asked by Woburn resident Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) 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 realizes the local tanneries could be responsible for several deadly cases of leukemia. Jan decides to go forward against two giant corporations which own the tanneries – Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace and Company – thinking that the case could possibly earn him millions and boost his firm's reputation.

Bringing a class action lawsuit in federal court, Jan represents families who demand an apology and a clean-up of contaminated areas. However, the case develops a life of its own and takes over the lives of Jan and his firm. The lawyers for Beatrice and Grace are not easy to intimidate, a judge (John Lithgow) 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 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, after Jan turned down an offer of $20 million from Beatrice attorney Jerry Facher (Robert Duvall) during jury deliberations. 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 dissolve their partnership, effectively breaking up the firm. Jan ends up alone, living in a small apartment and running a small-time law practice. He manages to find the last key witness to the case, but lacks resources and courage to appeal the judgement. The files are archived while Jan later files for bankruptcy.

A postscript reveals that the EPA, building on Jan's work on the case, later brought its own enforcement action against Beatrice and Grace, 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 New Jersey.

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 Charles Nesson, Mark Phillips, Rikki Klieman, Teresa Padro and others have been removed from the film version, as well as the plot points that they contribute.


Kathy Bates appears in an uncredited cameo in the final scene as the judge overseeing Jan's bankruptcy hearing.


The movie was shot in Boston, Dedham, Massachusetts, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Waltham, Massachusetts, Northbridge, Massachusetts, and Palmer, Massachusetts; Fenway Park, Boston Public Garden, Beacon Hill, Boston.[1]


Box office[edit]

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, Star Trek: Insurrection, You've Got Mail, Stepmom and Patch Adams. The film was successful on limited release.[2]


On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 61% based on reviews from 70 critics. The site's consensus called the film "Intelligent and unconventional."[3] On Metacritic the film has a score of 68 out of 100, based on reviews from 25 critics.[4] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade B on scale of A to F.[5]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3.5 out of 4 and wrote: "Civil Action is like John Grisham for grownups."[6]


  1. ^ "A CIVIL ACTION (1998)". NewEnglandFilm.com. 15 May 2008. Retrieved November 10, 2019.
  2. ^ ROBERT W. WELKOS (December 29, 1998). "'Patch Adams' Just What Holiday Ordered". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-06-07.
  3. ^ "A Civil Action". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  4. ^ "A Civil Action". Metacritic.
  5. ^ "Cinemascore". CinemaScore. Archived from the original on 2018-12-20. Retrieved 2019-09-02.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 8, 1999). "A Civil Action movie review & film summary (1999)". Chicago Sun-Times.

External links[edit]