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Opened in Theaters: Friday, December 25th, 1998

Directed by Steven Zaillian
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 1:53

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A Civil Action
Academy Award® Nominee
Kathleen Quinlan and John Travolta lead a cast of stars in this drama about one small town's battle against local industries who were contaminating their drinking water, and causing sickness and...  View more >

PG-13
some strong language

Starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, James Gandolfini...  View more >

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall)
View more information about this movie >

Reviews Summary

Rating # %  
See Now!  3 20 See Now! Percent
Good  5 33 Good Percent
Wait for Rental  6 40 Wait Percent
Stay Away!  1 7 Stay Away! Percent
15 Total Reviews

Please Note: Reader Reviews are submitted by the readers of The BigScreen Cinema Guide and represent their own personal opinions regarding this movie, and do not represent the views of The BigScreen Cinema Guide, or any of its associated entities.

[--- Good ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
A Civil Action (1998)

I like John Travolta. There's the connection I feel from my teenage years when he was Vinnie Barbarino, my friends and me cracking up in the high school cafeteria with the line, "Up your nose with a rubber hose." I grew up in New Jersey, and Travolta has Jersey connections (listen to his deceptive hard r's sometime, similar to Danny DeVito's). The man is just cool, hair swept back, face ready to look threatening or comedic.

The trouble is, he gets way too much screen time in 'A Civil Action.' Travolta's Jan Schlichtmann is a personal injury lawyer with two partners - Kevin Conway (Tony Shalhoub) and Bill Crowley (Zelijko Ivanek) - and an accountant, James Gordon (William H. Macy). Among these players, only Macy is doled out a decent number of lines by the script. Gordon has the job of locating finances for the case in which the firm is involved, and Macy does a fine job of complaining to the lead partner, Schlichtmann, about impending bankruptcy. In a scene in which Gordon confronts Schlichtmann during a thunderstorm, their law office dark and bare because of all the repossessions, we see Macy show a darn good stint of anger. His style is not physically threatening, but for a suit-wearing numbers-cruncher, he appears memorably agitated. Shalhoub and Ivanek, two strong actors, go along for the ride. What's weak here is that the film becomes as much about the lessons learned by one lawyer as about a legal case brought by parents of children who died of leukemia.

The town is Woburn (Woo-burn), Massachusetts, and the parents of the deceased children are not sure whom they should hold responsible. The most visible parent is Anne Anderson, played by Kathleen Quinlan. She embarrasses Schlichtmann as he talks on his legal radio show, the result being his visit to the town in order to drop the case politely. But on his drive back to the city he is stopped for a second speeding ticket; before he climbs back in his Porsche, Schlichtmann notices signs of pollution in the river. He investigates, catching his expensive shoes in the muck, but also spotting the tell-tale foam along the bank. After he eyes operations run by W. R. Grace and Beatrice, he decides this could be a money-maker. His firm commences to depose witnesses and hires a drilling firm to probe the aquifer for pollutants.

I've said already that I'm a Travolta fan, but the best actor in the thing is Robert Duvall. This guy is such a pro that he exudes character in the idiosyncrasies of his dress. While Jan Schlichtmann dons impeccable suits and silk ties done up in thin knots, Duvall's opposing lawyer Jerome Facher leaves his collar button unfastened, the neck pieces of his tie slightly visible. Facher, the legal eagle whose firm speaks for Beatrice Foods, is fastidious in his personal habits, and even more careful in his legal machinations. He may look like an old fogey who worships the Red Sox and revels at receiving free pens, but he is sly like Inspector Columbo, saving his canniness for when it counts. In a sequence of masterful intercutting, we watch Facher lecturing to his Harvard law students about maneuvers to avoid in court; while he warns against them, we witness Jan Schlichtmann committing the self-same mistakes! It's a relief that Duvall does not engage in his folksy chuckle in this role; I was beginning to believe he was overusing it. Robert Duvall is one of the very best living actors, and there's never any talk of his recovering from a career slump.

The story develops into an expose of the legal system, and that's fine, except that it feels like we should see more of the victims, the children who contracted cancers or at least their families. The glimpses we catch of Mrs. Anderson are brief. She sits in the back of the courtroom on the left-hand side. In a rare scene that brings us close to any of the children, Anne Anderson explains that if she and her son were ever separated in stores, their plan was to meet in the back on the left side. And he would meet his mother in the back, left-hand side of Heaven. I suppose the film is to be admired for not taking advantage of the tears that could be jerked; at least the tone is not sentimental. Still, we could stand more of the folks who ostensibly hired the firm of Schlichtmann, Conway and Crowley. Perhaps Kathleen Quinlan more opportunity to interact with the lawyers, the Judge Skinner (John Lithgow), somebody. Her role is merely functional, except toward the end when she expresses profound disappointment that she never got what she wanted, a meaningful apology.

The sets are appropriately decorated, especially the law offices and meeting rooms, their shelves lined in calfskin volumes, their heavy doors stained dark. Some nice business turns up concerning the house that holds Schlichtmann's office. It's almost a running joke when workmen remove more furnishings, and later Gordon gets up from the floor where his desk used to be, and launches his tirade at Schlichtmann, who has the habit of refusing offers of millions without consulting his cohorts. There are also some nice shots to establish the gravity surrounding courtrooms. Tall corridors lined in marble, the camera panning around the statue of a man wielding a sickle. (But maybe I remember these scenes because I saw them ten times over the last months, the slick trailer incorporating far too much of the story - but what trailer nowadays does not?)

Jonathan Harr's non-fiction best seller 'A Civil Action' sold 1.5 million copies. So the film has a solid base from which to spring. The film born of the book is realistic in its jaundiced view of the justice system, as well as in its tracing of a lawyer's financial fall. I should add that the picture does not end where it might, but continues to follow Schlichtmann's free fall. It's a decision that adds another dimension to the story, suggesting that his moral character has improved, even after facing the aftermath of a disastrous case.

Unfortunately, 'A Civil Action' increases the number of stories in which underdogs battle vast corporations. For the most part we see only lawyers representing Grace and Beatrice. But the film contains enough glittering pinpoints of originality, and above-average acting, to recommend it. If only it were not so much about John Travolta.

[--- Wait for Rental ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
First of all....I kind of liked it. This is not a great film, probably not even that good of a film, but it is worth seeing, but don't spend a lot of money on your ticket or rental. The story line is interesting and based upon actual incidents, but the film fails to excite the audience. If you have seen "Class Action", you will think this film was a poor TV version. There are some good scenes, but a great deal of holes in the story. I am not sure what the point of the film was...was it to show some lawyers as "ambulance chasers" or try to show a profoundly sad story about a few large companies that aided in the death of children....either way, it failed. The only thing you walk away with is a feeling that Beatrice Foods and the Grace Corporation are not really people or community-oriented. Bottom line...the truth behind the movie is a good story, but if you really want to get something out of it, go to the library (or internet) and search out the real truth for yourself.

[--- Wait for Rental ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
Boy was this movie overrated. Trovolta was pretty good, but should have played the mean lawyer throughout, like he was in the beginning of the movie. Quinlan made me sick with her holier than thou attitude, and Duvall (a great actor) seemed to put in about an hour of preparation before filming. He just fumbled around and made short but supposedly profound pronouncements. The ending was, well come to think of it, there was no ending. Overall, I would pay not to see this one again - just watch Law & Order, or the Practice if you're interested in this type of plot - because those shows are free and much better.

[--- Wait for Rental ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
"'A Civil Action'" had a pretty good story line considering it was based on a true story. The movie started out pretty good, but after a while it got to be dragged out and kind of boring. Furthermore, the second half of the movie seemed like it went nowhere. I did not like how the movie ended, but a true story cannot be changed. I guess it was an okay movie; however, I probably would not spend my time seeing it again.

[--- Wait for Rental ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
A Civil Action dissapointed me a lot! I thought from the previews it would be a movie that made you think. Instead it was drawn out, boring, and not very exciting. The ending was a surprise though. I would say wait for the rental because it really isn't worth the theater price. I strarted to get bored during the movie I don't know about you but to me that's not a very good sign. I really wish I would've seen a different movie. OH well too late- don't you make that mistake! The previews are better then the whole movie. John Travolta was great! The plot was just too dull.

[--- See Now! ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
This movie was a great movie. I really enjoyed seeing it because for one thing it was a true story and all, and also it had a good cast. This movie was good because for so many reasons it had a case that a man (John Travolta) devoted his whole life to to make a differance for the people that lost their loved ones, but I won't spoil the ending for you but you will be suprised with what happens at the end. But over all this movie was great in all sorts of ways and if I could see this movie again I would take the chance to see it again for many reasons, so get off your couch and see it because you won't be disappointed!

[--- Wait for Rental ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
If you find Grisham even remotely interesting or stay up late to the view the odd L.A. Law rerun then "A Civil Action" isn't for you. If you like the law or are at least fascinated by the way it works then this is the movie for you. Its not a fast-paced hollywood adventure story. Its characters are flawed and complex(sometimes to a fault). Don't look for an Oscar-worthy performance from John Travolta, but Robert DuVall is brilliant as the wise and wily Grace attorney. Quinlan is fantastic and Macy is out of this world as usual.

[--- Good ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
This was a good movie, but nothing special, so you can wait for it to come out on video and not miss anything.

[--- Good ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
'A CIVIL ACTION' , which stars Johon Travolta, is based on a true story. At first, a lawyer (John) thinks of only himself and money, however, during the case, he starts thinking of other people first and sacrifices himself for the sake of others and justice. How he acts is impressive and it teaches us the importance of human life and the dangers of pollution. But, I don't like the way the ending goes, the director made it short and not easy to understand. You may feel that the ways the lawyer proceeds with the case is not intelligent but maybe that's because this is a true story. There are no perfect people in the world. Everyone makes mistakes, even lawyers.

[--- See Now! ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
A successful lawyer gives up all his principles to fight for civil rights and justice. He loses everything: his money, his home and his friends and his partners. He shows us, that money can never replace morals and beliefs to go the right way. It is the brilliant actors, John Travolta and Co., great scenery and a true story which makes "A Civil Action" definitely one of the year's best movies. Trust me and enjoy it, you will not be disappointed.

[--- Good ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
This movie is about a group of lawyers who are about to go broke, so they need to find a good case to "save" them. That's when John Travolta finds out that kids are dying mysteriously in a little town near Boston. The people of that town start to think that the water is the cause of these deaths. Jonh Travolta and his crew do everything to prove that a factory near the town is throwing trash in the river, that ends up polluting the water in the little town. Travolta's character is fighting against two big lawyers, which makes things more difficult and complicated.

- Based on a true story, A civil Action is a good and interesting movie

[--- See Now! ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
A Civil Action is the best movie I have seen this year. I am upset by other reviews I have seen in various places for this movie. They are all from people who didn't even read the book and have nothing intelligent to say. I read the book and loved it! The movie wasn't as good, but it was definately worth the money. If you don't like lawyer/courtroom dramas I would say that this movie isn't for you. It is funny and entertaining. It is based on a true story and remains very true to the book. If you are looking for a climatic ending, you're not going to find it here. It is a real life story, and I found many of the people coming out of the theater saying they thought it should have had a better ending. That floors me because this is a refreshing movie that doesn't have a big hollywood ending. It's real and it's good.

[--- Stay Away! ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
Boy this movie stinks! I hate this film. The entire movie is too boring and pointless. The movie is mostly about toxic water. The ending is a very disappointment. I will not tell you what happen in the end of the film. Avoid this film at all costs. One of John Travolta's worst movies ever.

* out of ****

[--- Wait for Rental ---]by  Jan 25, 2000
An extremely watered-down version of 1997’s excellent "The Sweet Hereafter" resembles an average made-for-television entry with some big names added (Travolta, Duvall, Macy) to draw a crowd. Some individual bits are interesting (such as Duvall’s manipulation of the system and Macy’s inability to find more money) but the overall project is just not engaging enough to compete with John Grisham.

10-point scale rating: 5

[--- Good ---]by VIP MemberJun 8, 2003
a powerful courtroom drama about a lawyer, played by John Travolta, who battle local polluters over a town, where the cancer rate is very high. a strong cast has put together a compelling film.

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