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A Civil Action
A Civil Action
Actors: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, Zeljko Ivanek
Genres: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
PG-13     1999     1hr 55min

Jan Schlichtmann 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, Schlichtmann soon becomes entan...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, Zeljko Ivanek
Genres: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Sub-Genres: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen,Letterboxed - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 07/13/1999
Original Release Date: 01/08/1999
Theatrical Release Date: 01/08/1999
Release Year: 1999
Run Time: 1hr 55min
Screens: Color,Widescreen,Letterboxed
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 0
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Languages: English, French

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Member Movie Reviews

Sharon F. (Shar) from AVON PARK, FL
Reviewed on 9/28/2023...
One of the best movies I've seen in a long time! What took me so long to watch it?!!! Great cast of actors and a great, and true, storyline.
2 of 2 member(s) found this review helpful.
Jennifer D. (jennicat) from ST AUGUSTINE, FL
Reviewed on 1/3/2015...
Really good movie.

Movie Reviews

Brilliant but ultimately sad portrayal of an uncivil system
Daniel J. Hamlow | Narita, Japan | 07/31/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"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. Schlichtmann has sunken a million into the Woburn case, and pretty soon, they teeter on the waterfalls of insolvency to the point of mortaging their homes. It's become a source of pride, which has undone many an attorney as opposed to idiot witnesses, lousy evidence, and the hanging judge put together, as Jerome Fasher tells his law class.

Fasher, the attorney for Beatrice, is a statesman-like man of experience, but has a detached air coupled with some eccentricities. Yet he is a clever man, and his observation on the justice system is true, at times sickening. When Schlichtmann tells him he's searching for the truth, he tells him, "You've been around long enough to know that a courtroom's not the place to look for the truth." And he accurately says that the case stopped being about children the moment Schlichtmann filed for action.

The movie is sprinkled with legal commentary from Schlichtmann, which lays out how callous, ugly, and illogical the justice system is. He begins by talking about which types of clients are worth more, i.e. are winning cases. Whites are worth more than blacks, men more than women, a long agonizing death over a quick one. A white male professional in his 40's, in his prime, is worth the most. A dead child is worth least of all. Well, Schlichtmann finds out that children are worth something after all, especially when he imagines an agonizing scene where the LaFierros were taking their son to the hospital and died en route.

While John Travolta's best known for Grease and Saturday Night Fever, A Civil Action proves he can handle serious drama and he turns in one of his best ever performances. However, the real Jan Schlichtmann came to Farmington. He's close to seven feet tall, and in terms of resemblance, could've been played by Richard Gere. As Anne Anderson, Kathleen Quinlan is the other great performer, playing a woman changed through her ordeal into someone who has a tired and sad visage. The scene where Al Love (James Gandolfini), a conscience-stricken tannery employer personally apologizes to her shows that maybe the only real meaningful apologies come from humans, not corporations.

Trials and lawsuits are examples of how corrupt and rotten the legal system and some lawyers are. Is it worth having a system where the first party to come to their senses (i.e. to cut their losses and call for a settlement) is the loser? A Civil Action also shows that despite the need for compassion, it's better to have a lawyer who thinks more with the head than the heart."
Intelligent and Compelling Courtroom Drama
snalen | UK | 03/09/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"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..."
An Honest Hollywood Adaptation, For Once!
Robert J. Schneider | Tacoma, WA USA | 10/23/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)

"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!MOST RECOMMENDED"