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A Civil Action

4.4 out of 5 stars 236 customer reviews

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(Jul 13, 1999)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Travolta is a cynical, high-priced personal injury attorney who only takes big-money cases he can safely settle out of court. Though his latest case at first appears straightforward, he soon becomes entagled in an epic coutroom battle, one where he's willing to put his career, reputation and all that he owns on the line for the rights of his clients.

Jonathan Harr's nonfiction bestseller was a shot in the arm for those seeking more than last-minute heroics akin to a John Grisham thriller. Here was a labyrinthine case involving industrial pollution by two highly regarded corporations, contaminated drinking water, and the deaths of innocent children in New England, circa 1981. The case has hundreds of twists and takes our hero--a steady, respectable lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann--and turns his life into personal disaster. Instead of celebrating the law, the story is a maddening and rewarding look at the elusiveness of the courtroom case.

Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for adapting Schindler's List and directed Searching for Bobby Fischer, boils Harr's 502-page book into a complete, satisfactory film experience. Book readers will no doubt jeer the streamlining Zaillian had to perform to make the movie flow. Most changes can be quickly defused with the exception of the film's portrait of Schlichtmann. The lawyer has been turned into a movie star, an ultra-slick, cold-hearted gentleman who finds his purpose in working the case. Casting a stalwart John Travolta again diverges from the book, which right from the opening pages showed us a Schlichtmann with feet of clay. As Schlichtmann's partners (including William H. Macy and Tony Shalhoub) descend into the case, the unbridled sense of power and money is abandoned. This case is ultimately about survival.

Zaillian provides an excellent narrative for the sordid facts of personal injury suits, in which money is the only reward for lost or broken lives (deftly introduced in the film's opening scene). Zaillian also stays away from dwelling on the illness of the children involved, focusing on the gaunt faces of the parents who survive (Kathleen Quinlan, James Gandolfini) in controlled anguish. His evil characters--an industrial plant's owner (Dan Hedaya) and a corporate lawyer (another fine acting spin by director Sydney Pollack)--are so human it's terrifying. Zaillian's final ace in the hole is Oscar-nominee Robert Duvall. Perfectly cast as Travolta's opposition, Jerome Facher, Duvall steals scenes with the abbreviated dialogue; he turns a fancy settlement meeting into a farce with one line. Facher is not a callous, love-to-hate-him lawyer like James Mason in The Verdict. Facher represents the law at its brilliant foundation: to best represent one's client. With a taped-together briefcase and dry humor, Facher, not Schlichtmann, is the character who captures us by the film's end. --Doug Thomas

Special Features

Production Featurette|Theatrical Trailer|Chapter Search

Product Details

  • Actors: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, John Lithgow
  • Directors: Conrad L. Hall, Steven Zaillian
  • Writers: Steven Zaillian
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Closed-captioned, Color, Letterboxed, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
  • Studio: Touchstone Home Entertainment
  • DVD Release Date: July 13, 1999
  • Run Time: 115 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (236 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: 630542828X
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,604 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "A Civil Action" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
No, this film is not "based on a true story" or the cringe-inducing "inspired by a true story" (the latter which can mean anything, and usually does)--the fact is, this film IS a true story. It is the true story of how a materialistic personal injury lawyer pursues a noble yet unwieldly case, at the cost of all the materialistic benefits that he had spent his entire career in creating for himself.
Yes, this case really did exist. Yes, there really was (and still is) a lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann (as portrayed by Travolta), who really did pursue this case against two large corporations, Beatrice and W.R. Grace (both named in the movie), who really did illegally dump pollutants in a neighborhood somewhere in Massachusetts, and which really did cause the deaths of 12 children from leukemia. Yes, Mr. Schlichtmann really DID comment cynically when he was first presented with the case, "I really don't see the value in a bunch of dead babies." There really was a corporate defense attorney named Jerome Facher (as portrayed by Duvall) who played this case as if constantly hedging his bets at a Vegas casino poker table. And so get the idea.
This film is brutally honest, names names, pulls no punches...and forgoes the typical, traditional Hollywood-style happy ending for one that is completely real, unfabricated, and ultimately satisfying in the realization that, it too, is real. That doesn't mean that it is emotionally unsatisfying. After all, after investing nearly two hours with this case, and these characters, about which we grow to care completely (especially because we know they're real), this film does provide the payoff in the end. I just won't tell you which one; you have to see this brilliant film in order to find out.
This film proves, for once and for all, that the truth really is stranger than fiction!
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Format: VHS Tape
Sometime in the late 1960's, a hideous act of pollution took place in Woburn, Massachusetts, a small town north of Boston. Over the next fifteen years, twelve people died of leukemia. Eight of those were children. The firm of Jan Schlichtmann, Kevin Conway, James Gordon, and Bill Crowley take on the case on behalf of Anne Anderson, a woman who lost her child to cancer. For her, money isn't the point. All she wants to know is what happened, and for the responsible parties to come over and apologize to her and the other families. Thing is, corporations apologize with money, and if the corporations have deep pockets, it's a case worth taking, so money does indeed become the point in A Civil Action.

Schlichtmann uncovers the culprits, a chemical company, WR Grace and Beatrice Foods, who provide services for a tanning company owned by Riley. With that, he files a lawsuit, the legal equivalent to a declaration of war, and hires a geological team to provide scientific evidence should it come to trial.

Jan then does a couple things that leads to his downfall. One, he gets personally involved. In a news broadcast, he holds up snaps of the Woburn kids who have died. He shows empathy, which is a grave disservice to the legal profession because it clouds his judgment. He says it's like a doctor recoiling at the sight of blood. That leads to his demanding of WR Grace and Beatrice Foods a multi-million dollar settlement, including money for a research foundation, to cover expenses, and to provide for the families for thirty years, which the corporations refuse, which in turn takes the case to trial. He does this without consulting his partners, which doesn't bode well. James Gordon, the accountant, points out that they need to work on other cases to provide a cash flow.
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Format: DVD
Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta) is a Boston tort lawyer and something of an ambulance chaser who is initially reluctant to take on an industrial pollution case involving some children dead of leukaemia in rural New England. He changes his mind when he realizes the likely defendants are a couple of big companies with particularly deep pockets and smells the possibility of serious money. Over time, however his interest in the case becomes a moral obsession. The cynical becomes a crusader, refusing offers to settle as his company's finances spiral downwards towards bankruptcy.
If you like courtroom dramas, this is highly recommended. It's one of the best specimens of the genre to come out of America since `The Verdict'. It's interesting to compare it to `Erin Brockovich' released a couple of years later. EB is about how a heroic small timer takes on the big boys of corporate America and how her pluck and determination triumphs over all obstacles, something of a legal feelgood movie in other words. Which this, to its great credit, is not. Its central character, for starters, is far more amibivalently likeable: initially just out for a fast buck, moral seriousness has to creep up on him and take him by surprise (perhaps reminding writer/director Zaillian of Oskar Schindler whose story he scripted for Spielberg a few years earlier) and the story's development paints a significantly more ambivalent picture of what pluck and determination can accomplish. It's a highpoint of Travolta's acting career even if he is comprehensively upstaged by Robert Duvall, on brilliant form as his quietly cynical adversary, bigshot lawyer Jerome Facher who knows far better than to look for the truth in a courtroom...
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