Film Analysis #2 by McKenzie Farthing

Film Analysis #2 by McKenzie Farthing

After watching A Civil Action directed by Steven Zaillian many thoughts come to mind. Overall, this film was very effective in bringing light to a subject that is not often discussed in Hollywood, environmental justice. The main actors John Travolta, Robert Duvall, and Kathleen Quinlan did a great job in portraying the hardships that each family and the lawyers of this civil action lawsuit endured before, during, and after the case. Their popularity and respect in the entertainment industry immediately drew my interest to this film, and after watching it I have a gained an appreciation and better understanding of environmental law. This analysis provides a brief summary of the film and how closely it represents real historical events, discusses the theme of water and health, and provides an explanation about what the audience is meant to takeaway from this film.

The film A Civil Action was created in 1998 and is based off of the actual court case, Anderson et al. v. W.R. Grace et al, that took place regarding the environmental pollution that occurred in Woburn, Massachusetts during the 1980’s.[1] In the film, Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) and his small firm of personal injury attorneys were approached by a Woburn resident named Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan) and asked to take legal action against those responsible for polluting the town’s drinking water. Anne Anderson had lost her own son to leukemia and many of the other resident’s of Woburn had also lost children to cancer or other health problems associated with the pollution. Jan originally refused to take on the case until he realized the local tannery and small factory that were responsible for the contamination of the town’s ground water were linked to two large corporations, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace and Company. Jan filed a federal class action lawsuit against the companies and represented the families through an emotionally and financially grueling case. After months of litigation, Jan and his partners are forced to accept a settlement offer from W.R. Grace and Company after exhausting all their resources on the case. The firm breaks up after the case, the families were deeply disappointed with the outcome, and Jan ends up bankrupt. Months later Jan Schlichtmann revisits the case and finds key components he missed the first time. Because he has no money to take it on himself, he sends the appeal on to the EPA who goes on to win the case and closes down the local factories that polluted the town.

The film depicts the portrayal of the real historical events that took place in Woburn, Massachusetts. The film is based off of the non-fiction book, A Civil Action by Jonathon Harr. As with most adaptations, the film does leave out details surrounding the case that can be found in the book. For example, in the actual lawsuit the case was brought against three companies not just the two corporations shown in the film. The case involved W.R. Grace and Company, Beatrice Foods, and UniFirst, a laundry service. UniFirst made a settlement first for a little over $1 million and that money was immediately put into the ongoing case against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods.[2]

The film also downplays the role that the citizens of Woburn played in bringing attention to the pollution. The movie portrays Jan Schlichtmann as the hero who swooped in and fought for the people who had no voice. In reality Anne Anderson fought city hall and gathered support from other residents in town far before Jan Schlichtmann became involved in the case.[3] The movie portrays Anne Anderson as tearful, soft spoken, and helpless against these large corporations, yet in real life her actions are what brought much needed attention to the environmental injustices in Woburn. The book, A Civil Action, provides more historical detail about the case and surrounding events without Hollywood’s dramatization and would be a great source to investigate if one is looking for more historical detail on the subject.

The impact that water has on society is even clearer after watching this movie. Clean drinking water is necessary to live a healthy life, and this film provides an excellent example of the impact that water has on our health. In Woburn, Massachusetts the contaminated drinking water caused an abnormally high occurrence of deaths due to leukemia in children and caused a variety of other health conditions for the rest of the town. Water creates life, but if mistreated as it was in Woburn it can also cause death. Most people in United States do not think about clean water being an issue, yet there are still citizens across the country whose health is threatened by their drinking water. The film reminds us all of the impact that water has on health and the importance of protecting our watersheds.

Another theme in this film relates to water and power. Although dramatized in the film, the people of Woburn and Jan Schlichtmann’s small law firm were up against two large corporations that controlled their access to clean water, and it required millions of dollars to provide them a voice. The citizens knew their water was being contaminated; yet there was nothing they could do to stop it without the financial burden associated with lawsuits. That feeling of helplessness that each family experienced after watching their children suffer is something that no one should have to endure. Citizens should be given the power to speak up about their drinking water, and we must continue to search for better ways to make the government more receptive to their voice. This movie raises questions regarding whose responsibility it is to protect our environment and who has the power to do so.

This film leaves the audience with many thoughts about the environment, drinking water, and trust in our government to protect these resources. Its emotional appeal to the audience serves as a way to make people think about their own families and what they would do if they were put in the same situation as the people of Woburn. My hope is that the audience gains more of an awareness about the toll environmental pollution still has on society and that one will be more conscious of their own actions. I have taken away a greater appreciation of the complexities of the legal processes involved in taking on environmental cases similar to the one seen in the film, and my sympathy goes to the families that were faced with such an avoidable tragedy. It is frightening to know that the companies got away with contaminating the water systems for so long. Pollution is an ongoing problem across the world and this film proves that corporations must be held accountable for their impact on the environment.


[1] IMDb. “A Civil Action.”, Inc, 1990-2016.

[2] Dan Kennedy, “‘A Civil Action’: The real story,” Boston Phoenix, December 1998.

[3] Ibid


Kennedy, Dan.“‘A Civil Action’: The real story.” Boston Phoenix, December 1998.

IMDb. “A Civil Action.”, Inc, 1990-2016.