A Civil Action

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A Civil Action is the name of a 1996 non-fiction book by Jonathan Harr and its 1998 film adaptation. Both were based on "Anderson v. Cryovac", a historical legal case which lasted from 1982 to 1990. The film was directed by Steven Zaillian, previously known for Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). The main stars were John Travolta and Robert Duvall.

The background for the case was a real-life water contamination in the city of Woburn, Massachusetts. The Other Wiki summarizes: "During the mid to late 1970s, the local community became concerned over the high incidence of childhood leukemia and other illnesses, particularly in the Pine Street area of east Woburn. After high levels of chemical contamination were found in City of Woburn’s Wells G and H in 1979, some members of the community suspected that the unusually high incidence of leukemia, cancer, and a wide variety of other health problems were linked to the possible exposure to volatile organic chemicals in the groundwater pumped from wells G and H. In May 1982, a number of citizens whose children had developed or died from leukemia filed a civil lawsuit against two corporations, W. R. Grace and Company and Beatrice Foods. Grace's subsidiary, Cryovac, and Beatrice were suspected of contaminating the groundwater by improperly disposing of trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (perc) and other industrial solvents at their facilities in Woburn near wells G and H."

The film follows events from the perspective of Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta), the lawyer representing the people of Woburn. He is a successful attorney who effectively leads a small firm of personal injury lawyers. At first, Jan sees the case being unprofitable and thinks of rejecting it. Then, he figures that the major environmental issue could help further establish his fame and the defendants with deep pockets could really make this lucrative. The case at first goes poorly for him, the corporations hiring the best lawyers money could buy. Including Jerome Facher (Duvall), who represents Beatrice Foods. Jan loses the first trial on the case. However, this only serves to further motivate him. It has become Personal for him, and he seeks victory regardless of the financial and personal cost. Jan and associates start going deeply into debt, his firm breaks up, his personal life is in shambles. But Jan perseveres.

The film is considered a box office failure. In the United States market it earned an estimated 56,709,981 dollars. Only the 38th most successful film of its year. It seems to have underperformed in other markets, failing to cover even its budget. Critically, the film faired fairly well. While it could be seen as just another David Versus Goliath story, it takes another path. As critic Janet Maslin put it: "The story presents both Schlichtmann and the civil court system as stubbornly complicated. And it tells a finely nuanced tale of right, wrong and the gray area in between." This is a world of "murkiness, bitter successes and frustration". Which might also be its main fault, considering the complains about the relative lack of excitement and the Downer Ending. While Travolta's performance is considered solid here, it was Duvall who earned the most praise. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He lost to James Coburn, who won for his role in Affliction.

Tropes used in A Civil Action include:
  • Amoral Attorney: Jerome Facher.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Jan basically loses the lawsuit against the two companies that had dumped toxic chemicals into the local water supply, settles the case for far less than his expenses in pursuing it, and ends up declaring bankruptcy.
  • Heel Face Turn: The whole film charts Jan Schlichtmann's transformation from a cynical, Smug Snake attorney into an altruistic crusader against corruption and injustice.
  • Karma Houdini: Arguably, the companies. Just like the real-life case, the judge rules that, of the two companies that have been dumping chemicals in the water and killing kids with leukemia, one is acquitted and the other pays only about $8 million, most of which goes to the lawyers. Sure, Jan got the EPA to investigate and force them to contribute $68 million to cleanup and payments for the victims' families, but that's a small price to pay for such large companies, and far, far less than the amount they would have had to pay if they were both found liable during the trial.
  • Magnificent Bastard: Jerome Facher....again.
  • On the Money: At some point, Jan is told how much money his law firm needs to stay in business. Later, he's offered exactly that amount to settle a big case, suggesting that the rival law firm had inside information.
  • Strongly Worded Letter: Unintentional subversion: the film was about a corporation that polluted and caused illnesses, and the climax was the good lawyer writing a letter. But that letter had serious effects.
  • That Was Objectionable: Combined with Ironic Echo Cut. One of the defense attorneys, who is also a law professor, is shown giving a lecture to his students:

Jerome Facher: A plaintiff's case depends on momentum. The fewer objections he gets, the better a case will go. ... Relevance - objection. Hearsay - objection. Best evidence - objection. Authenticity - objection. If you should fall asleep at the counsel table, the first thing out of your mouth should be...

    • Cut to Facher sleeping during the trial...

Judge: "Do you swear to tell the whole truth, so help you God?"
Facher: (waking up) "Objection!"