A Civil Action

January 8th, 1999


A Civil Action

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Still of John Travolta in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta and Robert Duvall in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta and Kathleen Quinlan in A Civil Action

The families of children who died sue two companies for dumping toxic waste: a tort so expensive to prove, the case could bankrupt their lawyer.

Release Year: 1998

Rating: 6.4/10 (15,751 voted)

Critic's Score: 68/100

Director: Steven Zaillian

Stars: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Kathleen Quinlan

Jan Schlichtmann, a tenacious lawyer, is addressed by a group of families. When investigating the seemingly non-profiting case, he finds it to be a major environmental issue that has a lot of impact potential. A leather production company could be responsible for several deadly cases of leukemia, but also is the main employer for the area. Schlichtmann and his three colleagues set out to have the company forced to decontaminate the affected areas, and of course to sue for a major sum of compensation. But the lawyers of the leather company's mother company are not easy to get to, and soon Schlichtmann and his friends find themselves in a battle of mere survival.

Writers: Jonathan Harr, Steven Zaillian

John Travolta - Jan Schlichtmann
Robert Duvall - Jerome Facher
Tony Shalhoub - Kevin Conway
William H. Macy - James Gordon
Zeljko Ivanek - Bill Crowley
Bruce Norris - William Cheeseman
John Lithgow - Judge Walter J. Skinner
Kathleen Quinlan - Anne Anderson
Peter Jacobson - Neil Jacobs
Mary Mara - Kathy Boyer
James Gandolfini - Al Love
Stephen Fry - Pinder
Dan Hedaya - John Riley
David Thornton - Richard Aufiero
Sydney Pollack - Al Eustis

Taglines: Justice has its price.


Official Website: Buena Vista |

Release Date: 8 January 1999

Filming Locations: Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Box Office Details

Budget: $60,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend: $70,079 (USA) (27 December 1998) (2 Screens)

Gross: $56,702,901 (USA) (2 May 1999)

Technical Specs


Did You Know?

A number of scenes described in the book are reproduced in the film, such as Facher's asking for the hotel pen at the settlement conference, Schlictmann's meeting with Eustis at the Harvard Club in New York, Gordon's attempts to keep the firm solvent (even purchasing lottery tickets and giving money to televangelists) and Riley's behavior at his deposition.

Continuity: At the end of the movie when the woman comes out on her front porch and picks up the newspaper, she removes the rubber band and looks at the top half of the paper. In the next cut she is looking at the bottom half of the paper and in the very next cut she is looking at the top half again.

Jan Schlichtmann: It's like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth more than a living severely-maimed plaintiff. However, if it's a long slow agonizing death as opposed to a quick drowning or car wreck, the value can rise considerably. A dead adult in his 20s is generally worth less than one who is middle aged...

User Review

Thankfully not another pretty conversation piece

Rating: 9/10

I'm usually put off by courtroom films simply because I associate them with either the tendency for pompous and ornate speech-making a la "A Few Good Men," or cheap audience-manipulation a la "Primal Fear." Yes, they are entertaining, usually with great actors and fine performances - thinking man's thrillers. But generally they remain nothing more than that - a well-done conversation piece.

"A Civil Action" was a pleasant surprise because it is not only like neither of those films, but also because it is a good film starring John Travolta. While he had his moments in the spotlight for good reason (think: "Pulp Fiction") his movies are generally not that great. But that's just a personal opinion and I may be wrong.

Still, "A Civil Action" is a great courtroom film. For one, it's a true story (which doesn't necessarily say much), and it is told with restraint, quietness and respect for the characters involved (which should be saying a lot). It takes the best from "Silkwood" and "Verdict" and it gives us people who are real and who engage in battle the way we imagine real people would. They don't have dramatic moments in the courtroom upon which an unreal stillness descends so as to be shattered at the end of the speech by the thunderous sound of unanimous, emotionally-fraught clapping.

John Travolta is great here and so is the rest of the cast, among them William H. Macy, Kathleen Quinlan, Sydney Pollack, John Lithgow, Stephen Fry (in a small cameo role), Kathy Bates (in an even smaller cameo role) and the great Robert Duvall. In the end, it is Duvall who steals the show in his quiet, unemotional musings, advice-givings and deliberations with Travolta. He embodies the restraint for which the film strives.

"A Civil Action" is quiet in its proceedings and, consequently real. It tells the story of a lawyer who reluctantly accepts a case having to do with the contamination of water and the deaths of many children in a small town and becomes obsessed with it to the point of going bankrupt. His obsession mirrors the self-destructiveness of Paul Newman's lawyer in "Verdict," and it has real results. His adversaries are not evil people, per se (think Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men"), but people who are simply doing their jobs damn well, defending their interests. We shouldn't expect them to cave in to pretty speech-making, nor should the jury.

And watching "A Civil Action" we don't and it doesn't. The personalities clash, personal tragedy is pitted against financial burdens of the legal process, and it yields startling conclusions about the American Justice system. And that is what "A Civil Action" chooses to focus on more so than the true story it tells (though it doesn't ignore it either). The film shows the price of justice and how justice is understood in the legal process. In fact, it draws a very fine dichotomy between non-legal justice and legal justice and shows how hard it is to get "justice" in a legal setting. Needless to say, it becomes a very expensive ordeal full of re-interpretations of the law and annoying manipulations of it. What we can gather from the story, however, is that we should be grateful for people who are willing to go to extreme lengths, at great personal cost, to define justice on their own terms and to fight for it.


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