Film Analysis #1 by John Bills

Film Analysis #1 by John Bills

A Civil Action, directed by Steven Zaillian, is a powerful film that captivates the audience immediately from the opening scene of the film. As the movie begins, main character, Jan Schlictmann, a personal injury attorney played by John Travolta, wheels his client into the courtroom. As Jan is doing this, he is also narrating over the film claiming:

It’s like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as 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. A dead woman less than a dead man. A single adult less than one who’s married. Black less than white. Poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down in his prime. And the most imperfect? Well, in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all.

The power of Jan’s monologue in this incredible opening scene intrigues and captures the audience as it alludes to immoral legal actions. In addition, his last sentence is very foreshadowing and contradictory as Mr. Schlichtmann, in the later stages of this film, represents many families who lost their children due to leukemia. Some other key actors in this film include William H. Macy, James Gandolfini and Robert Duvall who all significantly add to the buildup and excitement of this motion picture. What helps make this two time, Oscar-nominated film so powerful and moving is its plot, actual depiction from a true story, themes involving water, and its take home message.

The movie starts off with successful attorney, Jan Schlictmann, and his conceited money crazed group of lawyers, including Kevin Conway, James Gordon and Bill Crowley, who are all only interested in the potential dollar signs behind their cases. Their financially driven motivation starts to change as the team takes on a major case representing many families, in a rural area of Massachusetts, whose children died of leukemia. Jan’s legal argument was that the deaths of these victims were the result of water pollution by a tannery owned by two large corporations, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, which had been dumping a toxic industrial solvent into the water table of Woburn, Massachusetts for over a decade. Although the companies Schlictmann’s firm was trying to sue were substantially wealthy, the case bankrupted Jan and the rest of his practice along the way, both personally and professionally. Even though their lawsuit held a very compelling case against both the companies, they were only able to reach a settlement with one of them, W.R. Grace. Beatrice Foods, represented by Jerome Fascher, was not held accountable to settle. Later in the film, Jan finds critical information proving that both companies were guilty, but does not have the time or the resources to appeal the case in court. Because of his determination for the truth, he sends the case and all his work, to the EPA, which eventually sues both companies, successfully, and makes them resolve the problem causing the cancer.

The fact that A Civil Action is based off a true story makes the movie even more compelling to the audience. Viewers tend to feel more connected to real stories over fictional ones. Further, the factual basis for the movie helps the audience delve deeper into the movie as they want to find out more and more of what truly happened. Another interesting fact about this movie is that all the character names were the real names of the actual people involved in this case, again helping to build a deeper connection between the viewer and the film. After reviewing some of the actual historical facts about this case, I realized this film does a decent job depicting what truly happened in the court case. In addition to the film’s accuracy, many lawyers who viewed this movie felt that much of the hectic and immoral courtroom behavior depicted actually does happen in real life.[1] A scene that shows this perfectly is when the judge made the jurors answer three questions to determine if the companies were guilty. This was done to actually help the defense in hopes of not allowing the parents of the victims to testify against Beatrice Foods. Fascher knew that his case would be lost if the parents got up on the witness stand. These questions were purposely not worded very well and were extremely difficult to comprehend. Since the legal wording was so confusing, Beatrice Foods was able to walk away and the parents were unable to testify against the company.

Although this movie, for the most part, does a good job accurately showing what truly happened, it definitely does not present the entire story. The movie storyline is skewed since it narrates from only one perspective. The film portrays the companies as big, bad, corrupt organizations that just wanted to take advantage of poorer people with little representation. It also portrays the companies as not caring about the polluted water or who their chemicals affected. Although the case did involve two large organizations against smaller underrepresented people, the corporations, in no way, wanted to carelessly poison the local citizens of the area.[2] This, however, was not explicitly shown in the film. Another part of the movie that strayed from the truth was the depiction of most people, including the judicial system, actually working against Jan Schlichtmann. Examples of this were when the defense lawyers were having unethical meetings with the judge outside of the courtroom, and when the court managed to prevent the parents from being witnesses. However, after reading about what truly happened in the trial against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, everything was completely fair and nothing that the judge did favored one side over the other.[3]

It is also very interesting how water plays a significant role throughout this film. In addition to the water pollution, the film reveals multiple themes revolving around water. One major theme that is depicted many times throughout the film is class division. Specifically, an example of this can be seen at the beginning of the movie when the people of Woburn ask Schlictmann for legal representation. Jan is not interested because he does not see enough financial reward resulting from this case to warrant his time. This scene exemplifies the theme of class tensions because successful and educated, Jan Schlichtmann, does not care for the poor, the citizens of Woburn, since there is nothing in it for him. This division of classes is further portrayed in those affected by the water crisis. Those who could afford to live outside of Woburn had clean water, while those without financial means lived within Woburn and consumed the polluted water. Another major theme in the film relating to water is the common good. Although Jan, at first, was primarily concerned with following the money trail, he changes throughout the film as he decides the parents have a moral case and wants justice for the families and the people of Woburn. For Jan, this case is about resolving the water crisis for the common good of all the people, despite the fact he eventually becomes bankrupt. This is evident as Schlictmann demands for compensation of the affected families, as well as compensation to clean the environment. This theme can also further be seen when Jan turns down a 20 million dollar settlement from Mr. Fascher. Although Jan needed the compensation, he could not morally accept it because the water problem still would not be solved, and therefore, nothing would be done for the common good. This is a powerful theme as it shows someone who was initially driven by money, change and be driven by the common good in order to correct a serious water hazard. Clearly, themes related to water were frequently seen throughout the movie.

Although the film, A Civil Action, has a very interesting plot and crucial themes, the most significant part about this film is its take home message. The take home message, seen by the end of the movie, is how one measures success. In the beginning of the film, Mr. Schlichtmann only cared about the bottom dollar in his pocket. However, over the course of the film, as he represents the families of Woburn, Jan changes his attitude as he realizes there is more to life than money. This can be clearly understood at the end of the film when he is arguing with his law partner, James Gordon, stating, “This isn’t about money anymore.” This evolution, in the attitude of Jan Schlichtmann, is what is most compelling in the story and is what the audience remembers the most after the credits roll.


[1] A Woburn Skeptics’ Page,” A Woburn Skeptics’ Page, December 23, 1998, , accessed November 28, 2016,

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid


“A Woburn Skeptics’ Page.” A Woburn Skeptics’ Page. December 23, 1998. Accessed November 28, 2016.