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A Civil Action

1998 motion picture starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall.

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Based on Jonathan Harr's non-fiction bestseller.

  • Jun 24, 2009
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In the early 1980's a terrifying situation was unfolding in the Boston suburb of Woburn, MA.  Within a very short period of time eight of the town's young children had died of leukemia.  The parents of these children were desperate to discover just what was going down in their town.  Many of the townsfolk suspected that the culprit could very well be a tanury located about a half mile from the town's water supply.  For several decades this facility had manufactured a highly toxic chemical known as trichloroethylene or TCE. This was potentially a very emotional and divisive issue in Woburn because many of the residents earned their living at the tanury.  The parents needed a lawyer to help them get to the bottom of all this.

Now at the time Jan Schlichtmann (played by John Travolta) was a highly-successful personal-injury attorney.  His M.O. was to make the insurance company pay up before the matter at hand ever went to trial.  He was darn good at what he did.   Schlichtmann was contacted by Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the mother of one of the young victims.  After meeting with a group of the parents Schlichtmann concluded that there was little or no  money to be made from this case and politely turned them down.  Shortly thereafter Mr. Schlichtmann discovered that the site was actually owned by a couple of major American corporations, namely W.R. Grace and Beatrice Food.   Now dollar signs danced in his head and Jan offered to take the case.  He had no idea what he was getting into.

Meanwhile, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall) is the attorney for one of the major corporations who are the defendants in this case.   Facher is a seasoned and articulate attorney who is expert at making his points with a little bit of humor and a  minimum of words.   Despite the fact that he is representing the "bad guys" in this case one cannot help but like this charactor.  For me one of the most poignant scenes in this film is when during the course of the trial Facher rattles off a series of questions to one of the grieving parents.  He asks:  "Do you use pesticides?" , "Hairspray?" , "Teflon?"  and the list goes on and on.  Facher is effectively making the point that while all of us clamor for clean air and water we also demand thousands of products that require dangerous chemicals in the manufacturing process.  In effect he is asking this conflicted father "How many of these things are YOU willing to give up to clean up the environment?"   It is a question that begs much soul-searching by us all.

At the end of the day Jan Schlichtmann and his partners at the personal injury law firm
(William H. Macy and Tony Shalhoub) risk everything they have on this one case.  It has now become a matter of principle for which all of them will pay a dear price.  For as we discover our legal system is full of booby traps and cozy relationships.  It is hard to buck the system.  I found "A Civil Action" to be a gripping movie from start to finish.  I was totally transfixed for the entire two hours.  I think you will be too. I have heard that the book is even better!     Highly recommended!  

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June 24, 2009
I thought Travolta and Duvall both did a great job with their characters. Great book as well.
About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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About this movie


Jan Schlichtmann, a tenacious young lawyer, is confronted with the litigation of a lifetime in this unbelievable real-life story. Several families in the small town of Woburn, Massachusetts, have suffered the tragic losses of their children to the rare cancer known as leukemia. After having their claim rejected by most law firms in town, these citizens approach Schlichtmann with the possibility that the deaths of their children may have had to do with Woburn's drinking water supply being contaminated by a couple of local businesses. The rub lies in the fact that these businesses are offshoots of two of the most powerful national corporations in the country! Schlichtmann must push his skill and craftiness as a lawyer to the limit in order to oust his opponents, who are working with a limitless bankroll. Based on the great fact-based novel.
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Genre: Drama, Legal
Release Date: 1996
DVD Release Date: July 13, 1999
Runtime: 115 minutes
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
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