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A Civil Action (1998)

PG-13 | | Drama | 8 January 1999 (USA)
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A tenacious lawyer takes on a case involving a major company responsible for causing several people to be diagnosed with leukemia due to the town's water supply being contaminated, at the risk of bankrupting his firm and career.

Director:

Steven Zaillian

Writers:

Jonathan Harr (book), Steven Zaillian (screenplay)
Nominated for 2 Oscars. Another 5 wins & 8 nominations. See more awards »

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
John Travolta ... Jan Schlichtmann
Robert Duvall ... Jerome Facher
Tony Shalhoub ... Kevin Conway
William H. Macy ... James Gordon
Zeljko Ivanek ... Bill Crowley
Bruce Norris 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
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Storyline

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. Written by Julian Reischl <julianreischl@mac.com>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis

Taglines:

Justice has its price.

Genres:

Drama

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG-13 for some strong language | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »
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Details

Country:

USA

Language:

English

Release Date:

8 January 1999 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Una acción civil See more »

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Box Office

Budget:

$75,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend USA:

$70,079, 27 December 1998, Limited Release

Gross USA:

$56,702,901, 2 May 1999
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Runtime:

Sound Mix:

DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS

Color:

Color

Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

During the phone conversation in the radio booth, a confused Schlictmann asks Anne Anderson, "Is this Rikki?" Rikki Klieman is a real-life lawyer and former love interest of Schlictmann's in the true-to-life book. Since 1999, she's been married to Boston's former police chief William J. Bratton, who also headed the LAPD and the NYPD. See more »

Goofs

Towards the end of the movie, the newspaper that Anne is holding flips over and back again between shots. See more »

Quotes

[first lines]
Jan Schlichtmann: [narrating] It's like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as 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. A dead woman less than a dead man. A single adult less than one who's married. Black less than white. Poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 ...
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Crazy Credits

The producers wish to thank the people of Boston, Waltham, Northbridge, Charlestown, Dedham, Brimfield and Palmer, MA. See more »

Connections

Featured in The 71st Annual Academy Awards (1999) See more »

Soundtracks

Take Me to the River
(1973)
Music and Lyrics by Al Green and Teenie Hodges
Performed by Talking Heads
Courtesy of Sire Records Company
By Arrangement with Warner Special Products and licensed courtesy of EMI Records Ltd.
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Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

There's no place for pride in the courtroom
22 May 1999 | by Philby-3See all my reviews

Courtroom drama is a robust dramatic formula; there is human conflict, suspense and, in the verdict, resolution. In the real world court cases don't run to the formula; many cases are stillborn, many are settled before trial, some seemingly decisive victories are reversed on appeal. The lawyers generally seem to survive though. In the American system of civil litigation the contingent fee is common - the lawyer gets paid only if the client succeeds, usually a third of the verdict or settlement amount. This can lead to some pretty crass conduct.

In this film, based on a very fine book about real events in the Boston area, we have a rather rare example of a lawyer trying so hard he defeats his own cause. Yet at the end he may have brought about a greater social good. Jan Schlictman (played with smarmy aplomb by John Travolta) is a seasoned plaintiff's lawyer in personal injury cases who knows all the tricks, both in pre-trial negotiation and before a jury. He is persuaded by an associate to look into a claim by a small community that its water has been poisoned by industrial waste resulting in the deaths of at least eight children from leukemia and other ailments. The case captures his attention and before long the entire resources of his four-partner firm are concentrated on it. They are up against a local tannery owner and two huge corporations, Beatrice and W&R Grace. Beatrice is represented by Faucher (a stand-out performance from Robert Duvall) a crusty veteran of 45 years litigation (and Harvard Law School lecturer), and he doesn't have much trouble cutting Jan down to size.

Despite the escalating cost Jan doesn't seem to know when to stop. His partner James (another gem-like performance from William H Macy) does everything he can to raise money, including applying for credit cards from banks as far away as Fargo, North Dakota (those who saw Macy in "Fargo" will chuckle over that one.) Total disaster is averted but it seems that Jan has been fighting the wrong battle.

To fit the mood the lighting is dull (surely the Boston Courts are not quite as gloomy as portrayed) and the weather awful. I've never seen it rain so much in a movie. Against this dismal backdrop the performances are luminous. Apart from those already mentioned there is John Lithgow (of "Third Rock from the Sun" fame) as a conceited judge, Kathleen Quinlan as a bereaved parent, Bruce Norris as Cheeseman, Grace's super nerd lawyer, Dan Hedaya as O'Reilly the evil tannery owner and Stephen Fry as a very English geologist. And who should pop up at the end as a bankruptcy judge but Kathy Bates.

This is a case where I have read the book (by Jonathan Harr) and for the movie the film makers have rather sidelined the plaintiff/victims and focused more on Jan's manic prosecution of the case. This helps the drama but does give the impression that the plaintiffs were helpless bystanders. This was not so, as the book shows.

As a movie this one succeeds very well. Some have complained it's a bit slow and requires rather too much legal knowledge from ordinary filmgoers but there is plenty of tension and the ending is as satisfactory as one gets in real life. It's a movie to make a lawyer cringe, and that is probably recommendation enough.


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