A Civil Action
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Product Description

The true story of an epic courtroom showdown in which two corporations stand accused of causing the deaths of children. Representing the parents is a young flamboyant lawyer who hopes to win millions, but he ends up losing nearly everything, including his sanity.
Genre: Feature Film-Drama
Rating: PG13
Release Date: 2-APR-2002
Media Type: DVD

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

Customer Reviews:

  • Good for whole family
    My family is very cautious about what we watch, and this is the perfect family movie. It is suspensful and entertaining, very heartfelt. Great acting....more info
  • Cleaning Up a Mess
    A voice explains the worth of a person in tort law. A young child is worth the least, a white middle-aged professional is worth the most. A Massachusetts hospital is being sued, the lawyers agree to a settlement after the jury is selected. [Does this match your experience?] Personal injury lawyers are the sole defense against a corporation for the average citizen. The small town of Woburn lost a dozen young children to leukemia. They blame contaminated drinking water, but that may be difficult to prove. Will Jan Schlichtman take this case? It takes a lot of money to bring a case to trial. Fate brings Schlichtman to that industrial site where waste is dumped into the river. The need for a lunch hour is explained (to promote sanity in a hectic environment).

    The judge seems biased against personal injury lawyers. Rule 11 is old and ambiguous. Discovery goes on to learn about waster disposal from the industries. One witness knows something. "Did you ever eat peanut butter?" Silicone and TCE are spilled on leather for waterproofing; where does the waste go? The costs for doctors and geologists are high. They must borrow money from a bank for expenses. One employee tells more to Jan. Another man tells what they did: just dumped it in the ground. Most cases are settled not tried. Jan gives his price for a settlement. Too high?

    The trial begins. A civil suit is over money for suffering and damage. The witnesses testify. A phone call brings Jan to the judge's chambers. If they can't prove the chemicals reached the wells there is no case. The jury must decide three questions. Jerry talks about Truth and a Court of Law. Will Jan settle for $20 million? Or less? What is the trial about? Money or Justice? There is a settlement. After costs and fees there is $375,000 per family. Will that site be cleaned?

    Jan remembers about spilling that glass of water. Somebody had to clean it up, and there will be records. How could a fire ignite water? Jan would file an appeal, the odds are against it. But he can't afford it so he sends the records to the EPA (they have the resources). The result was the closure of the factories in Woburn. Jan filed for bankruptcy. What happened? After paying off debts Jan took on a similar case in Toms River NJ.
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  • Fair
    The cassette was in very good condition. The story: my wife loves real life movies and if it has her favorite actor... imagine. She loved it....more info
  • I repeat >> snalen "snalen" .................
    I copy and paste >> snalen "snalen" - (another reviewer's commentary here) who expressed it perfectly. "snalen" said:

    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 leukemia 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...

    And I add, a VERY entertaining and interesting movie with some redeeming social value, a very provacative movie that should inspire many 'thoughtful' viewers to an enlightened perspective ... that may not have ever been considered before!

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  • Solid Flick with very pertinent material despite its age.
    As a former resident of the Greater Boston area this was a film that evoked memories on a number of levels. The investigations of cancer clusters and their relationship to EPA Super Fund Sites is still something that should be coordinated. Moving film with solid performances.The follow up to the story is perhaps more hopeful. The sites have been cleaned and are being utilized! Despite the irepairable damage done to these families America can heal itself via the tenacious actions of its citizen/victims and the scar tissue shoud be a reminder as to the dangerous and destructive nature of unmonitored business interests. ...more info
  • Hmmm...ok
    What made me give the movie such a low rating is the ending. The movie starts strong and continues to be solid and well done, until the end. But the end itself is so-so.


    * Of course, this is one of those John Travolta-gets-20-mil movies, so it must be good, right? Well, maybe. John certainly gave a terrific performance in the movie.

    * The movie is virtually star-studded. It includes such great actors as Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, and most importantly, John Lithgow. I love this guy. After seeing him do an awesome job on 3rd Rock from the Sun, it's nice to see him do something very serious again. He is amazingly convincing as the judge in the movie, and when he angrily screams, acting doesn't get any better. The movie also contains two of my all time favorite supporting actors, Dan Hedaya (Dick, First Wives Club) and James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano).

    * One of the most exciting things in movies is the trial scenes (just watch A Few Good Men and Primal Fear). The trial scenes in this movie are pretty good.


    * At the end, what happened? Instead of writing what happened to the characters we hated, we should've seen it. That ruined the ending.

    Bottom line: Worth a rent....more info

  • A good movie, with great performances and interesting story
    A Civil action is a solid movie with some good performances and a story that does not cave into Hollywood's propensity for clich¨¦s.

    I was not expecting a whole lot from this movie, so I was pleasantly surprised. It offers an intriguing story based on real events surrounding the contamination of the water supply in the small, industrial Boston suburb. However, it seems to be at least as much if not more so about the legal process than about the suit itself. Travolta, who plays the prosecuting attorney, Jan Schlichtmann, before the trial was a successful was a not very respected personal injury lawyer (A.K.A. ambulance chaser). During the progression of the story, he narrates advice to the audience as if a he is a law professor. It is this instruction that he himself does not follow and thus leads to trouble for himself and his clients. The movie, in this way, is almost as much about the seemingly illogical logic behind litigation then it is about the individual case it portrays.

    Travolta does an excellent job as the attorney who feels he constantly has something to prove to the corporate monstrosities of Beatrice and Grace and their Harvard-educated attorneys (Schlichtmann, it turns out, graduated from lowly Northwestern). Robert Duvall plays Jerome Facher, Beatrice's lawyer, as an old wise man who has seen everything and is impossible to ruffle. All he wants is to be left alone to eat his lunch in peace and he is content. William H. Macy plays Schlichtmann's firm's increasingly depressed accountant who is forced to leverage the partner's mortgages and take pile charges onto 20 credit cards in the seemingly hopeless effort to wait out the juggernauts their firm is up against.

    The DVD is itself very mediocre. It has a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, but because this isn't an action film, but more of a human/courtroom drama, there's really not a whole lot here to take advantage of 5.1 channels. The only "special feature" of this DVD is the so-called "Production Featurette" which must be all of 5 minutes long and amounts to more of a glorified trailer than anything else - basically it's just a rehash of scenes from the movie with a couple of really quick takes from Travolta and Macy about the movie. I hope that Touchstone will improve a bit on these featurettes in the future to where they actually contain some significant content....more info

    A taut probing look at lawyers, the law, judges, corporate giants vs the people, its victims. This film depicts sharp crafty hot-shot lawyers interested only in pursuing personal injury suits guaranteed to win huge settlements- finally immersing themselves in a case that may be beyond their ability to win, crushing their confidence and dismantling their ranks and their finances. The case is worthy, the victims deserving of justice, and the battle collossal. John Travolta as the top obsessed lawyer is excellent, and Robert Duvall as a wise, old opponent is superb. A magnificient cast rounds out this drama concerning the illness of adults, deaths of innocent children, and animals because of contaminated drinking water and industrial pollution. Unfolding the massive cover-up and getting this case into the courtroom to be heard is almost impossible, but our hero plods on. Gripping, intense, yet uplifting and redeeming in its concept of the often frustrating saga of " trying to do the right thing." I liked the film. Yes it deviated from the book, but films often take a creative twist. It begins on a "Jerry Maguire-SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!!!!" tone, but expands into "A Philadelphia Story" of sorts....more info
  • Well-adapted story with terrific acting
    After recently reading Jonathan Harr's book A Civil Action, I eagerly awaited seeing the movie version of this sad and absorbing story. The film version condenses the story and leaves out several interesting portions of the book, but is fine nevertheless. John Travolta is a perfect choice to play Jan Schlichtmann, the egotistical, free-spending attorney who dives headfirst into a damages case against the corporate giants Beatrice and W.R. Grace, who are accused of poisoning the drinking water of Woburn, Massachusetts and causing a leukemia outbreak. William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, and Zeljko Ivanek co-star as Schlichtmann's partners in the firm, and one only wishes that they would have protested his actions, which led to the financial ruin of him and his firm.

    Robert Duvall gives another terrific performance as Jerome Facher, Beatrice's attorney, who is the complete opposite of Schlichtmann. In a scene at a fancy hotel conference room, the frugal Facher is not impressed by any of the lawyers or their arguments, but the free pen that he can take home. It's a subtly funny scene that illustrates Facher perfectly. John Lithgow does a terrific job as Judge Walter Skinner, who Schlichtmann believes is siding with the enemy.

    A Civil Action is a story where the winners and losers are unclear, and it must have been difficult for writer-director Steven Zaillian to condense Harr's technical-laden novel. The result is a solid drama with powerhouse acting. Highly recommended....more info

  • Riveting and Powerful Cinema - An Eye-Opener for All
    This is the most incredible movie ever made about trying a wrongful death case and the accompanying emotional roller coaster the process generates for attorneys. The opening scene will plant you firmly in your chair as Jan Schlichtmann (played by John Travolta) explains the financial calculus behind accepting and declining potential clients with personal injury claims. Jerome Facher (played by Robert Duvall) is infuriating with his unending legal maneuverings designed to extract his corporate client from an untenable legal position permeated with liability. The traitorous conduct of Schlichtmann's partners will make you wretch with disgust as they scramble to save themselves at the expense of righting a terrible wrong evidenced by a dozen dead children. Engrossing, to say the least.

    Yes, the movie isn't perfect. Travolta's portrayal of Jan Schlichtmann doesn't completely mesh with the character in the book, there isn't a practicing attorney alive who doesn't know Rule 11 (court-imposed sanctions for unethical conduct), and the legal proceedings aren't quite right. Who cares? If the director had included the day-to-day minutiae involved in getting a case to trial, the film would have been three years long! My fellow reviewers are unreasonable in their unrelenting critiques.

    If you're involved in the legal profession, this film will make you step back and reassess your brand of client representation. Are you taking the right cases? Are you serving the needs of you clients - or yourself? Are you willing to give your all to the law? Interesting, and always stimulating, food for thought.

    If you're a lay person, hold on - you're in for the ride of your life....more info

  • Could Have Been Titled: "Corporate America Kills People"
    If you enjoy the ABC television series "The Practice", you are sure to enjoy this suspenseful legal drama, based on a true story of corporate abuse. Though we are not a big fan's of John Travolta, he is very good in his role as the "eager money-seeking" lawyer he plays in this film. I particularly enjoy films based on true stories, because there are so many stories of injustice in America, why make up new ones? This one follows several small and large companies (Beatrice Foods is named specifically) who (basically) poison a community through several legal and moral violations of environmental law. The film leaves you wondering how such injustices continue to occur in America? It should also make you question each and every major corporation you do business with. The film captures the irony of lawyers at their best and their worst. The movie closes with an interesting twist - the one issue that the legal team lost focus on during their attempt to find justice....more info
  • good for rainy days.....
    This is a good movie for mundane rainy days, times when you want to let your brain idle, and if you like lawyers. well, i guess amazon won't be selling any more copies of this one. Seriously, for someone like myself who doesn't like movies, this one really held my attention. I have recommended it to several people and finally decided to buy my own copy....more info
  • Not bad, not bad
    It was pretty good, and actually very good in the aspect that they did go broke, and it was very good from the legal perspective. I enjoyed it....more info
  • My vote for best picture of 1998
    Outstanding legal drama, brilliantly acted. When I left the theater and again when I viewed this on DVD it had me thinking for hours about all of the powerful messages contained in this story. This true story beautifully portrays the impact our personal decisions make on our own lives and the lives of others. Compelling and powerful. The transfer to DVD was fine....more info
  • Good movie, but inaccurate
    This is a fine movie, just inaccurate. When I saw the movie I knew precious little about the events surrounding the Woburn case. Since the movie I've grown quite familiar with the case- for a class at the law school I attend I was required to read the book and read a companion to the book containing copies of the actual documents the two sides entered into evidence. The movie, I came to realize, was a fine piece of cinema but grossly inaccurate as to what actually happened in the book.

    Travolta is fine as Jan Schlictman, the lawyer pursuing the case against the W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods Corporations for dumping TCE into the river around the city of Woburn. Critics of the book who disliked the slight slant author Jonathan Harr gave to Schlictman and the plaintiffs will really dislike the larger slant the film gives in their favor. The real Jan Schlictman is hardly the callous jerk the movie makes him out to be in the beginning. Likewise the movie also makes caricatures out of Schlictman's foes- Grace lawyer William Cheeseman (who is unfairly portrayed as a doofus) and Beatrice lawyer Jerome Facher (who comes across as a scheming, Machiavellian presence). Critics also quarrel with the film's portrayal of Judge Walter J. Skinner, who is made out to be a tyrannical presence in the courtroom.

    In terms of acting I rather liked Robert Duvall's turn as Facher. He gives a lot of depth to Facher, where a lesser actor would have made Facher a cartoonish villain. It is important to understand that Facher, Schlictman, and Cheeseman were not evil people- they were just advocates for their clients doing their best. The movie also leaves out a lot of important details and misportrays a lot of events. (The portrayal of the Rule 11 hearing, for example, is utterly wrong.) Those not familiar with the book will find Harr's analysis of the pretrial maneuvering to be facinating, but totally gone from the movie.

    Don't misunderstand me- the movie is very good, on the balance. It gets some things right about the law (one of my biggest pet peeves is hearing people take legal facts they hear from movies and believe they are actually real), and the performances are (mostly) quite good. The book is just better....more info

  • Much better than I thought it would be
    I originally got dragged to this movie and expected a Grisham-esque ripoff. However, I found this movie to be an outstanding study of the different roads people decide to go down in life - Duvall's cynical and heartless character shows us the dark and lonely one - and Travolta's character the bright, but still lonely road.

    I bought the DVD so I can watch it every once in awhile and remind myself why it's best to be good and do the right thing - even if it means going broke in the process. John Travolta's revealing smile in the end is priceless.

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  • A well acted fiction - but hard to swallow story and pathetic scientific reasoning
    If taken as a work of fiction, this is a pretty good movie. We have sympathetic victims, a hero lawyer (and the other wonderful people in his firm) (of course, anyone not receiving a settlement check might find the hero lawyer stretching things), and easy to hate "big corporations" and their sinister attorneys! Sadly, this film is billed as based on truth. Yes, there were people who may have suffered from poisoning through their water, although it remains unproven. Most of us cannot accept the statistics of cancer and believe that it must always be "caused". Still, not matter what you believe, you can search the web and verify that this movie's version of the facts is mostly made up. You can draw your own conclusions as to why.

    Yes, the rich corporations were made to pay money for a cleanup. However, that in no way proves their guilt scientifically, although there are legal proofs that have nothing whatever to do with reality. Nevertheless, this is a compelling couple of hours if you can stop the reasoning part of your brain from asking a few key questions here and there.

    Luckily, the movie didn't make its money back, so its relative failure will dampen the making of these hero-lawyer / bad-company fictions that contribute to a general misperception of reality....more info
  • Read the book
    Don't bother wasting your time with this movie, instead read the book. The book was one of the best I have ever read, the movie left me wanting. I rented the movie after reading the book and never made it all the way through. So maybe I am being unfair since I did not watch the whole movie, but honestly I couldn't, it just didn't do the story justice. For a book that was captiviating they sure made the movie boring, if the movie industry is in this to make money, they should have tracked the book more closely....more info
  • A Great Courtroom Drama
    This is a movie starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy if that is not enough reason to see this movie then I don't know what is. A must see....more info
  • The Price of Justice in a Civil Action - Heather Hender
    In A Civil Action John Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann the hottest young lawyer in Boston. He is a personal claims lawyer with a successful small practice and he is one of the 10 most eligible bachelors in Boston. Jan will do anything to win a case. During the progression of the story, he narrates advice to the audience as if a he is a law professor. It is this instruction that he himself does not follow and thus leads to trouble for himself and his clients. The movie, in this way, is almost as much about the apparently unreasonable reason behind litigation then it is about the individual case it portrays.
    We are introduced to the way Jan Schlichtmann operates in a dark yet amusing prologue. This shows Schlichtmann pushing one of his unfortunate clients into court, fixing his pillows, getting him a drink, and wiping his face. All while the jury tries to choke back their tears, and the defending lawyers frantically try to settle before the trial begins by writing increasingly large settlements on a pad for Schlichtmann's approval. While this is all going on Schlichtmann gives a brilliantly deadpan voiceover, explaining how much you can expect to receive for various types of injury and which types of clients are worth more in winning cases. He concludes "that whites are worth more than blacks, men more than women, the rich more than the poor and a long agonizing death over a quick one. A white male professional in his 40's, in his prime earning potential, is worth the most and a dead child is worth least of all."
    Everything is going well for Jan and then a case with at least 10 dead children drops into his lap. This case is known as an "orphan" as it has landed in every prominent lawyer's office and all have passed on it prior to him. But Schlichtmann's firm takes on the case when he discovers that culprits are owned by two of America's major corporations WR Grace and Beatrice Foods. But for the families, money isn't the point, and all they want to know is what happened, and for the responsible parties to come over and apologize to them for their loss. The 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. From then on, we get to watch a characteristic David versus Goliath clash, which involves the lawyer with his limited team and funds and the huge corporation with unlimited resources and a very clever lawyer (Jerome Fasher) heading its case.
    Schlichtmann does a couple things during the case that leads ultimately to his downfall. First, 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 sit 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 bankruptcy to the point of mortgaging 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 (played by Robert Duvall) tells his law class.
    Fasher, the attorney for Beatrice, is a statesman-like man of experience, but has a isolated yet eccentric personality. He is a knowledgeable man, and his observation on the justice system is true, but at times appalling. 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 truthfully says that the case stopped being about children the moment Schlichtmann filed for action.
    Robert Duvall gives an excellent performance as Jerome Facher, Beatrice's attorney, who is the complete opposite of Schlichtmann. In a scene at a fancy hotel conference room, the frugal Facher is not impressed by any of the lawyers or their arguments, but the free pen that he can take home. It's a subtly funny scene that illustrates Facher perfectly.
    The film does a great job in presenting the feelings and priorities of those injured by the negligence of a corporation. Often people think that money is everything in a civil trial, but this example shows that that is not always the case. Some of the characters evolve greatly during the story, understanding what is really important and what is superficial. This film initially gives an impression of a film where a greedy lawyer grows a conscience and starts out on a quest to defend the less privileged. But, even though the subject is not new, the way in which the story is presented and the performances by John Travolta, and especially Robert Duvall, make this a decent production nevertheless.
    The blurb on the jacket claims that A Civil Action is "The best legal thriller ever." I personally believe this quote does the film a major disservice, because by calling it a "thriller" it gives the audience the idea that this is going to be something standard and Hollywood, with the obligatory "Hollywood" ending, and it's not. It's based on true events and exposes our legal system bare, it shows the impartial brutality of the adversarial system, and how one man's flaws can be amplified by that system, until they consume not only him, but all those around him.
    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. This film shows startling conclusions about our Justice system, and that is what A Civil Action chooses to focus on more so than the true story it tells. 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 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 interpretations of the law and unfortunate 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.
    ...more info