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
  • January 8, 1999 (1999-01-08)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$75 million
Box office$56 million

A Civil Action is a 1999 American legal drama film directed by Steven Zaillian and starring John Travolta (as plaintiff's attorney Jan Schlichtmann) and Robert Duvall, and 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 his 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[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.



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.[1]


Film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes certified the Film as "Fresh" with 60% of reviews favorable, summarizing the consensus as "intelligent and unconventional."[2]



  1. ^ "'Patch Adams' Just What Holiday Ordered". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-06-07.
  2. ^ "A Civil Action". Retrieved 3 May 2018.

External links[edit]