|A Civil Action|
International theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Steven Zaillian|
|Written by||Steven Zaillian|
|Based on||A Civil Action|
by Jonathan Harr
|Music by||Danny Elfman|
|Cinematography||Conrad L. Hall|
|Edited by||Wayne Wahrman|
|Distributed by||Buena Vista Pictures|
United International Pictures
|Box office||$56 million|
A Civil Action is a 1998 American legal drama film 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 Academy Award for his performance.
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 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 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 him and his firm's already considerable reputation.
Bringing a class action lawsuit in federal court, Jan represents families who demand a clean-up of contaminated areas 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 (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 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 from Beatrice attorney Jerry Facher (Robert Duvall) 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 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.
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 Toms River, New Jersey.
Differences from the book
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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.
- John Travolta as Jan Schlichtmann
- Tony Shalhoub as Kevin Conway
- William H. Macy as James Gordon
- Željko Ivanek as Bill Crowley
- Kathleen Quinlan as Anne Anderson
- Mary Mara as Kathy Boyer
- Robert Duvall as Jerry Facher
- Bruce Norris as William Cheeseman
- Peter Jacobson as Neil Jacobs
- Sydney Pollack as Al Eustis
- Daniel von Bargen as Mr. Granger
- John Lithgow as Judge Walter J. Skinner
- Dan Hedaya as John Riley
- James Gandolfini as Al Love
- Stephen Fry as Dr. George Pinder
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.
- Academy Awards, USA
- Blockbuster Entertainment Awards
- Nominated: Favorite Actor - Drama (John Travolta)
- Nominated: Favorite Supporting Actor: Drama (Duvall)
- Boston Society of Film Critics Awards
- Chicago Film Critics' Association Awards
- Nominated: CFCA Award Best Supporting Actor (Duvall)
- Florida Film Critics' Circle Awards
- Won: FFCC Award Best Supporting Actor (Duvall)
- Golden Globes
- Nominated: Golden Globe Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Duvall)
- Political Film Society
- Won: PFS Award Human Rights
- Satellite Awards
- Nominated: Golden Satellite Award Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture - Drama (Duvall)
- Screen Actors' Guild Awards
- Won: Actor Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role (Duvall)
- USC Scripter Award
- Won USC Scripter Award (Jonathan Harr (author), Steven Zaillian (screenwriter))
- Writers Guild of America, USA
- Nominated: WGA Award (Screen) Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: A Civil Action (film)|
- A Civil Action on IMDb
- A Civil Action at AllMovie
- A Civil Action at the TCM Movie Database
- A Civil Action at the American Film Institute Catalog
- A Civil Action at Rotten Tomatoes
- A Civil Action at Metacritic
- A Civil Action at Box Office Mojo
- A Civil Action: Before the book and before the film (early newspaper articles by reporter Charles C. Ryan)
- Beyond A Civil Action hosted by W. R. Grace & Co.
- In Toxic Tort Litigation, Truth Lies at the Bottom of a Bottomless Pit by Eric Asimow, Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law & Popular Culture, February 1999
- Anderson v. Beatrice Foods Index and copies of every pleading filed in the Woburn suit, maintained by Florida State University College of Law