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A Civil Action

International Poster
Directed by Steven Zaillian
Produced by Scott Rudin
Steven Zaillian
David Wisnievi
Robert Redford
Rachel Pfeffer
David McGiffert
Henry J. Golas
Written by Novel: Jonathan Harr (based on a true story)
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian
Starring John Travolta
Robert Duvall
Tony Shalhoub
William H. Macy
Kathleen Quinlan
Bruce Norris
John Lithgow
James Gandolfini
Stephen Fry
Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography Conrad L. Hall
Editing by Wayne Wahrman
Distributed by USA/Canada
Touchstone Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) December 25, 1998
Running time 115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $60,000,000 (estimated)

A Civil Action is a 1998 American drama film 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 environmental pollution that took place in Woburn, Massachusetts in the 1980s.

The real case and movie revolve around the issue of trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, and its contamination of a local aquifer. A lawsuit was filed as commercial operations 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. Travolta and Duvall had previously worked together in the 1996 film Phenomenon. In 2007, Travolta and Macy were paired up once more as Woody Stevens and Dudley Frank in the comedy film Wild Hogs.



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 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. A tannery production company could be responsible for several deadly cases of leukemia, but also is the main employer for the area. Jan decides to go forward against two giant corporations (real-life companies Beatrice Foods and the W. R. Grace and Company) with links to the tannery, thinking it's another case that could possibly earn him millions, as well as a name for him and his firm.

With a class action lawsuit to file, Jan represents families who demand a clean-up of the contaminated area and an apology. However, it develops into a case that could ruin Jan and his firm. The lawyers of the leather company's parent corporation are not easy to intimidate, a judge rules against him, and soon Jan and his partners find themselves in a battle for mere survival.

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 cost. Pressures take their toll, Jan and associates going deeply into debt. The case is dismissed in favor of the one of the two defendants. Jan is forced to accept a settlement with the other that barely accounts for his expenses.

His own colleagues no longer wish to work with him and break up the firm. Later, on his own, Jan comes up with an idea that is able to win a settlement for the families, but his life remains in shambles. He ends up alone, filing for bankruptcy. However, the Environmental Protection Agency later brings up a class-action suit against the offending company and they're forced to pay millions to clean up the groundwater. It takes Jan several years to settle his debt but he later goes into environmental damage law.


Differences from the book

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

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.



Movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes certified the movie as "Fresh" with 60% of reviews favorable, summarizing the consensus as "intelligent and unconventional."[1]


The music score was written by Danny Elfman.

Other songs include:


See also


External links


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