Posted: 09/08/1999


A Civil Action


by Del Harvey

The true story of an ambulance chasing lawyer’s Quixotic crusade against two large corporate conglomerates who are polluting the drinking water.

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This film is based upon true events. The real story ended with the culmination of personal-injury lawyer Jan Schlictmann’s last trial efforts in 1989. The story takes place in Boston, Mass., and one of its suburbs, Woburn. It begins when a young attorney in Schlictmann’s practice brings in a case nobody wants. The case: seven children died from leukemia in a small town outside Boston. The cause: unknown, but believed to be polluted drinking water. The culprits: a local tannery, owned by two large corporate conglomerates.

Schlictmann is portrayed by Travolta as the ultimate ambulance chasing lawyer, rich beyond his dreams, driving around town in his black Porsche, listed as Boston’s most eligible bachelor. Throughout the film he narrates from a radio show he once gave on personal-injury law and from an undisclosed time period after the trial. He is driven by success and greed. When he tells the junior partner (the extremely talented Tony Shaloub) that he will tell these parents in Woburn their trial has no merit, he means there is no money to be had in dead children. As he states in the narrative, “the perfect personal injury case involves a white male in his mid-forties, because he is at his financial prime and generally has a family to provide for.” There’s no money in dead children. So Schlictmann drives to Woburn, earning himself a speeding ticket in both directions, only to confront the families of the dead kids with his harsh dismissal of their case. All they want, says Kathleen Quinlan, a victim’s mother, is an apology from whomever did this to their kids. They don’t want any money. They do not know who is dumping toxics into the river, but they know someone is. Their reasons are not convincing enough for Schlictmann, who is soon back on the highway earning his second speeding ticket. And stopped there on the highway he sees the river, the train tracks running along the river, and the tannery in the distance. He sees opportunity; he sees money.

From this point on no amount of money offered up by the big corporations is good enough. When he takes his small ‘David’-sized firm up against the giants owned by the corporates (W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods), as represented by Robert Duvall in a tour de force, he fights the good fight, pushing until the competition is prepared to give in to his demands for $50 million. Then, during negotiations, he makes unreasonable demands. His partners (Shaloub, William H. Macy, and Zeljko Ivanek) are stunned at this; they know what they are and are quite happy doing this type of law, no matter how much they are looked down upon. They make money, they can support their families, and they do occasionally help people. But Schlictmann is on a crusade at this point, and he is going to find out what happens to crusaders.

Travolta turns in a top-notch performance, as does everyone in the cast. Lithgow is superb as the pernicious judge. William H. Macy, Tony Shaloub, Kathleen Quinlan, and James Gandolfini are excellent. Duvall is the shining star of the film, in yet another supporting role that elevates his abilities to heights few other actors can touch.

Though flawed in maintaining a suspense level, as a legal drama and a story of how the little people sometimes win over ‘Goliath’ corporations, A Civil Action is a very rewarding film. Catch it on video.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago, is a devout Bears fan, and is a veteran of the Walt Disney Company and the Directors Guild of America.

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