A Civil Action

January 8, 1999 0 By Fans
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Still of John Travolta in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta and Robert Duvall in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta in A Civil ActionStill of John Travolta and Kathleen Quinlan in A Civil Action


The families of children who died sue two companies for dumping toxic waste: a tort so expensive to prove, the case could bankrupt their lawyer.

Release Year: 1998

Rating: 6.4/10 (15,751 voted)

Critic's Score: 68/100

Steven Zaillian

Stars: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Kathleen Quinlan

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.

Writers: Jonathan Harr, Steven Zaillian


John Travolta

Jan Schlichtmann

Robert Duvall

Jerome Facher

Tony Shalhoub

Kevin Conway

William H. Macy

James Gordon

Zeljko Ivanek

Bill Crowley

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


Dan Hedaya

John Riley

David Thornton

Richard Aufiero

Sydney Pollack

Al Eustis

Justice has its price.


Official Website:
Buena Vista |

Release Date: 8 January 1999

Filming Locations: Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Box Office Details

Budget: $60,000,000


Opening Weekend: $70,079
(27 December 1998)
(2 Screens)

Gross: $56,702,901
(2 May 1999)

Technical Specs


Did You Know?


A number of scenes described in the book are reproduced in the film, such as Facher's asking for the hotel pen at the settlement conference, Schlictmann's meeting with Eustis at the Harvard Club in New York, Gordon's attempts to keep the firm solvent (even purchasing lottery tickets and giving money to televangelists) and Riley's behavior at his deposition.


At the end of the movie when the woman comes out on her front porch and picks up the newspaper, she removes the rubber band and looks at the top half of the paper. In the next cut she is looking at the bottom half of the paper and in the very next cut she is looking at the top half again.


Jan Schlichtmann:
It's like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth more than 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…

User Review

Thankfully not another pretty conversation piece

Rating: 9/10

I'm usually put off by courtroom films simply because I associate them with
either the tendency for pompous and ornate speech-making a la "A Few Good
Men," or cheap audience-manipulation a la "Primal Fear." Yes, they are
entertaining, usually with great actors and fine performances – thinking
man's thrillers. But generally they remain nothing more than that – a
well-done conversation piece.

"A Civil Action" was a pleasant surprise because it is not only like neither
of those films, but also because it is a good film starring John Travolta.
While he had his moments in the spotlight for good reason (think: "Pulp
Fiction") his movies are generally not that great. But that's just a
personal opinion and I may be wrong.

Still, "A Civil Action" is a great courtroom film. For one, it's a true
story (which doesn't necessarily say much), and it is told with restraint,
quietness and respect for the characters involved (which should be saying a
lot). It takes the best from "Silkwood" and "Verdict" and it gives us people
who are real and who engage in battle the way we imagine real people would.
They don't have dramatic moments in the courtroom upon which an unreal
stillness descends so as to be shattered at the end of the speech by the
thunderous sound of unanimous, emotionally-fraught clapping.

John Travolta is great here and so is the rest of the cast, among them
William H. Macy, Kathleen Quinlan, Sydney Pollack, John Lithgow, Stephen Fry
(in a small cameo role), Kathy Bates (in an even smaller cameo role) and the
great Robert Duvall. In the end, it is Duvall who steals the show in his
quiet, unemotional musings, advice-givings and deliberations with Travolta.
He embodies the restraint for which the film strives.

"A Civil Action" is quiet in its proceedings and, consequently real. It
tells the story of a lawyer who reluctantly accepts a case having to do with
the contamination of water and the deaths of many children in a small town
and becomes obsessed with it to the point of going bankrupt. His obsession
mirrors the self-destructiveness of Paul Newman's lawyer in "Verdict," and
it has real results. His adversaries are not evil people, per se (think Jack
Nicholson in "A Few Good Men"), but people who are simply doing their jobs
damn well, defending their interests. We shouldn't expect them to cave in to
pretty speech-making, nor should the jury.

And watching "A Civil Action" we don't and it doesn't. The personalities
clash, personal tragedy is pitted against financial burdens of the legal
process, and it yields startling conclusions about the American Justice
system. And that is what "A Civil Action" chooses to focus on more so than
the true story it tells (though it doesn't ignore it either). 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 justice 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
re-interpretations of the law and annoying 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.