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Literature / A Civil Action

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A Civil Action is a 1996 non-fiction book by Jonathan Harr and its 1998 film adaptation. Both were based on "Anderson v. Cryovac", a historical legal case which lasted from 1982 to 1990. The film was directed by Steven Zaillian, previously known for Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). The main stars were John Travolta and Robert Duvall.

The background for the case was a real-life water contamination in the city of Woburn, Massachusetts. The Other Wiki summarizes: "During the mid to late 1970s, the local community became concerned over the high incidence of childhood leukemia and other illnesses, particularly in the Pine Street area of east Woburn. After high levels of chemical contamination were found in City of Woburn’s Wells G and H in 1979, some members of the community suspected that the unusually high incidence of leukemia, cancer, and a wide variety of other health problems were linked to the possible exposure to volatile organic chemicals in the groundwater pumped from wells G and H. In May 1982, a number of citizens whose children had developed or died from leukemia filed a civil lawsuit against two corporations, W. R. Grace and Company and Beatrice Foods. Grace's subsidiary, Cryovac, and Beatrice were suspected of contaminating the groundwater by improperly disposing of trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (perc) and other industrial solvents at their facilities in Woburn near wells G and H."


The film follows events from the perspective of Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta), the lawyer representing the people of Woburn. He is a successful attorney who effectively leads a small firm of personal injury lawyers. At first, Jan sees the case being unprofitable and thinks of rejecting it. Then, he figures that the major environmental issue could help further establish his fame and the defendants with deep pockets could really make this lucrative. The case at first goes poorly for him, the corporations hiring the best lawyers money could buy. Including Jerome Facher (Duvall), who represents Beatrice Foods. Jan loses the first trial on the case. However, this only serves to further motivate him. It has become Personal for him, and he seeks victory regardless of the financial and personal cost. Jan and associates start going deeply into debt, his firm breaks up, his personal life is in shambles. But Jan perseveres.


The film is considered a box office failure. In the United States market it earned an estimated $56,709,981. Only the 38th most successful film of its year. It seems to have underperformed in other markets, failing to cover even its budget. Critically, the film faired fairly well. While it could be seen as just another David Versus Goliath story, it takes another path. As critic Janet Maslin put it: "The story presents both Schlichtmann and the civil court system as stubbornly complicated. And it tells a finely nuanced tale of right, wrong and the gray area in between." This is a world of "murkiness, bitter successes and frustration". Which might also be its main fault, considering the complaints about the relative lack of excitement and the Downer Ending. While Travolta's performance is considered solid here, it was Duvall who earned the most praise. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He lost to James Coburn, who won for his role in Affliction.

The film provides examples of:

  • Amoral Attorney: A main theme of the film is that amorality is a necessary quality of successful lawyers, because their job is to give to their clients the best advice possible on the basis of the objective circumstances and the law and becoming too involved in their clients’ personal tragedies may cloud their judgment and make them less effective. This is played straight during the trial: the most amoral and competent attorney wins even if his client is guilty. Eventually subverted with Jan, who proudly states that at the end he has no regrets, since taking the Woburn case has made him a better man.
  • Artistic Licence – History: The film is quite faithful to the real Woburn case (or, at least, to Jonathan Harr’s book version), but sometimes departs from it for dramatic reasons:
    • At the beginning of the movie John Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann as a huge self-centered jerkass, who cares only about himself and even goes so far to say that the only good thing about the Woburn case is the “theatrical value” of eight dead kids (that’s before discovering that the case is against two deep-pockets defendants, of course). He only becomes more sympathetic, as he becomes more involved with the suffering of the families he is representing. The real Schlichtmann was much more idealistic: he decided to pursue a career in law only after having watched the Watergate hearings and having discovered through his work for the American Civil Liberties Union that the legal system could be used to defend the powerless and the weak. He even waived the chance of working for one of the best law firms of the nation because the partner interviewing him questioned his work on behalf of the minorities and the poor.
    • In the movie the Woburn case is selected by Kevin Conway (one of Jan’s associates, played by Tony Shalhoub) and Jan is vehemently against accepting it, considering it a useless waste of time and money. In real life, the Woburn case was Jan’s pet project while he was trying to build his legal practice and it was the careful Conway who insisted that he let it go, correctly assessing that it would be a very difficult case to prove and it could become way more expensive than the firm could afford.
    • William Cheeseman, one of the lawyers who represented W. R. Grace, is depicted as little more than an incompetent buffoon, to the point that one may wonder how he was able to become a partner of a huge law firm (which are very competitive workplaces where people who do not meet expectations are routinely asked to leave). The reason is that, while he was not particularly successful in the Woburn case, the real Cheeseman is a very good lawyer and his purported mistakes were greatly exaggerated. He must also have a good sense of humour as he reportedly does not mind his inaccurate portrayal in the film.
    • The film leads the uninformed viewer to conclude that the main hurdle in the case against Beatrice Food was the perjury of John J. Riley, the manager of Beatrice’s Woburn tannery (and its former owner), who denied to have poured contaminants on the factory site, and Jan’s botched cross-examination. Readers of the book know that, while Riley lied under oath and Jan was ineffective in his attempts to make him admit it, the expert witnesses phase (which is glossed over in the movie in a montage lasting for less than a couple of minutes) was much more important. W. R. Grace’s expert made an elementary mistake and Jan was able to destroy his credibility, while the geologist retained by Schlichtmann to demonstrate that the contamination of the Woburn wells came from Beatrice’s land was very competent, but had little to no courtroom experience, and was not able to withstand Facher’s relentless crossing.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Subverted. Jan loses the lawsuit against the two companies that had dumped toxic chemicals into the local water supply, settles the case for far less than his expenses in pursuing it, and ends up declaring bankruptcy. However, he finally finds evidence that Beatrice was responsible for the contamination of the wells and discloses it to the US Environment Protection Agency, which appeals the decision. The two companies are eventually forced to agree to spend dozens of millions of dollars to clean up the contaminated site.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The end of the film. Jan is completely broke and is forced to file for bankruptcy, but the EPA forces the two companies to clean up the contaminated site and he has become a better man thanks to his experience.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Jerome Facher is a literal one. His behaviour is, to say the least, unusual for a lawyer, to the point that he sometimes seems an old oddball. He is a huge baseball fan, to the point of playing with a ball during a conference call with a co-defendant's attorney in a serious case. He always uses an old briefcase, with a cartoon character sticker on it, which keeps breaking up and that he keeps repairing with huge amounts of duct tape, even in the courtroom during an hearing. But he is very well versed in civil procedure law and he is a skilled and experienced litigator and a cunning strategist, the kind of lawyer every sensible defendant would like to have on his side during a complicated lawsuit.
  • Butt-Monkey: William Cheeseman, in the film.
  • Common Nonsense Jury: Invoked by Jan during his chat with Facher in the hallway of the Courthouse while they are waiting for the Jury's verdict. Ultimately averted. The case against Beatrice is dismissed, mainly because Jan did not have the evidence to support it.
  • David Versus Goliath: This film is the story of a small law firm specialized in personal injury law representing eight middle-class families in a civil action against two mega-corporations and their first-rate lawyers, so this trope is invoked almost since the beginning. This is even lampashaded in Jan’s v.o. monologue below. Ultimately, this trope is cruelly subverted, in that Jan’s firm is conducted on the verge of bankruptcy, one corporation (apparently) gets out scot-free and the other settles the case for next to nothing, compared to its huge profits. Remarkably, Jan loses not only because his opponents are richer and more powerful, but also because their lawyers (or, at least, one of them) are better.
    Jan Schlichtmann [v.o.]: When you are a small firm and they are a big one, steeped in history and wealth, like they always are, with their Persian carpets on the floor and their Harvard diplomas hanging on the walls, it’s easy to be intimidated. Don’t. That’s what they want. That’s what they expect, like all bullies. That’s how they win. I don’t run away from bullies.
  • Downer Ending: The one of the book, which is unfortunately closer to Real Life. At the end of the trial Jan has become a wreck of a man, his legal practice is in shambles and he is completely broke. Moreover, the families of the victims sue him, claiming that he overcharged them for the expenses of the trial, and, while he is able to locate some undisclosed evidence against Beatrice, it is not enough to overturn the Jury’s decision. He will spend years appealing against the verdict in the Woburn case, suffering a string of humiliating rebuffs.
  • The '80s: Downplayed, but Jan and his associates are part of the thriving yuppie culture.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • In the film, when the law firm representing Beatrice Foods receives Jan's notice of claim, the senior partners instruct an intern to bring it to Jerome Facher immediately. After searching for him everywhere, the intern locates him in a remote corner of the library of the firm eating his lunch and listening to the radio report of a baseball game. At first Facher addresses the young man friendly, but the conversation quickly turns into an angry dress-down of the poor guy for having disturbed Facher during his only treasured moment in the day free from work. This scene not only establishes that Facher is a respected litigator to whom the most delicate cases are referred, but also shows that his friendly and eccentric behavior hides a ruthless bastard and, by extension, an opponent who should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, this is what Jan does.
    • Later, during a preliminary hearing William Cheeseman tries to have the case dismissed on the basis of an old and obscure rule of law. When the judge enters the courtroom, he immediately recognizes Facher, even exchanging a couple of baseball jokes with him, and is amazed that he is involved in the motion. Facher immediately points out that the motion was not filed by him and the judge goes on to reject it, brutally criticizing Cheeseman. This shows that the judge and Facher know very well and respect each other, which will be of crucial importance later on.
    • In the same scene Jan Schlichtmann commits many faux pas: he raises to speak before it is his turn (and is immediately rebuffed by the judge), interrupts the other lawyers, needlessly argues with a judge who is clearly skeptical about his opponent's motion, etc. Finally, he thanks Facher for not having joined Cheeseman's motion, without realizing that the elder lawyer did so only because he knew that the motion was doomed from the beginning. This is the first hint that Jan is not as skilled as a litigator as he believes to be (as he is used to settle his cases out of court) and that, notwithstanding his outward display of cynicism and scorn for the bigger first-tier law firms, he longes for recognition as a serious legal practitioner.
  • Fatal Flaw: Jan's one is Pride, which is particularly harmful for a lawyer.
    Jerome Facher: The single greatest liability a lawyer can have is pride. Pride... Pride has lost more cases than lousy evidence, idiot witnesses and a hanging judge all put together. There is absolutely no place in a courtroom for pride.
  • Foil: Cheeseman is one for Facher: both are successful lawyers working for white shoe law firms with big corporate clients. Both understand that their best chance to win the Woburn case is to have it dismissed on a technicality. But Facher is the more competent and successful of the two.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The whole film charts Jan Schlichtmann's transformation from a cynical, Smug Snake attorney into an altruistic crusader against corruption and injustice.
  • Honor Before Reason: Jan is offered to settle the case before the Jury's decision three times and he turns each offer down.
    • The first time is because he is underestimating Facher and the other lawyer is only offering to cover his expenses.
    • The second time is more a matter of "Pride before reason". He derails a serious attempt at negotiating a settlement by asking for a ludicrous sum (even if he knows perfectly well that his firm does not have the money for a long and expensive trial), because he is hurt and offended by the fact that the other lawyers are still belittling him and looking down on him, even if he was able to build a serious case, at least against Grace.
    • Finally, while they are waiting for the jury's decision, Facher approaches Jan and hands him over a twenty dollars note, offering to "add six zeros" to it (strongly implying that he has the authority to settle the case for twenty million dollars cash). The elder lawyer also invite Jan not to bet everything on the legal system's ability to do justice as they both know that it is simply not built to find the truth. Jan shreds the note to pieces, asserting his faith that the jury will somehow take the right decision. And naturally the jury dismisses the case against Beatrice. This is the moment when Jan finally turns from an arrogant Smug Snake ambulance-chaser into a Crusading Lawyer.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: If you are a lawyer representing a plaintiff and the defendant is represented by Jerome Facher, DO NOT be fooled by his dismissive behaviour and by his eccentricities.
  • On the Money: At some point, Jan is told how much money his law firm needs to stay in business. Later, he's offered exactly that amount to settle a big case, suggesting that the rival law firm had inside information.
  • Pet the Dog: Facher repeatedly tries to persuade Jan to drop or settle the case against his client, warning the younger lawyer that there is not enough evidence to support it and that he knows that Jan’s firm has not the money to face a long trial.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: As unpleasant as he can be, Jerome Facher, the main antagonist of the film, is just a lawyer representing his client to the best of his abilities. Had the families of the dead children retained him, he would have probably represented them with the same determination and competence.
  • Running Gag: in the film nobody seems to be able to get the pronunciation of Cheeseman's last name right the first time. He is obviously very annoyed.
  • Strongly Worded Letter: Unintentional subversion: the film was about a corporation that polluted and caused illnesses, and the climax was the good lawyer writing a letter. But that letter had serious effects.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: How the film ends. After failing at personally prosecuting the two companies for their actions, Schlichtmann manages to get the EPA onto the case in his stead.
  • That Was Objectionable: Combined with Ironic Echo Cut. Jerome Facher, who is also an Harvard law professor, is shown giving a lecture to his students:
    Jerome Facher: A plaintiff's case depends on momentum. The fewer objections he gets, the better a case will go. ... Relevance - objection. Hearsay - objection. Best evidence - objection. Authenticity - objection. If you should fall asleep at the counsel table, the first thing out of your mouth should be...
    (cut to Facher sleeping during the trial)
    Judge: Do you swear to tell the whole truth, so help you God?
    Facher: (waking up) Objection!

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