Film Analysis #3 by Rachel Linnemann

Film Analysis #3 by Rachel Linnemann

A Civil Action is a captivating film that explores the meaning of justice and civil law. The film, directed by Steven Zaillian, came out in 1998 and is based off of the book, A Civil Action, written by Jonathan Harr in 1996.[1] It features famous actors such as John Travolta, Robert Duvall, and Kathleen Quinlan. The film successfully addresses the complexities of stakeholders involved in civil law and power dynamics by using the non-fictional Woburn case of water contamination. The content of this post will include a brief summary of the film, a comparison between the film and the real life historical case in Woburn, the film’s portrayal of water themes such as health and scientific evidence, and major takeaways.

A Civil Action, follows a personal injury lawyer at a small firm named Jan Schlichtmann, played by Travolta, who prides himself in detaching emotionally from his clients. In Woborn, Massachussets, many people were getting sick and twelve people died of leukemia. Families reached out to Schlichtmann’s firm seeking an apology from someone responsible and more clarification about what was happening in their community. Upon discovering this orphan case, the reward for taking it on seemed promising at first for their firm. Through many interviews with community members in Woburn, Schlichtmann tries to prove that the twelve leukemia deaths resulted from drinking water contamination due to improper disposal of toxic chemicals from W.R. Grace chemical plant and the John J. Riley Tannery. The defendants in the case, Jerome Fatcher and William Cheeseman, continuously try to thwart all of Schlichtmann’s efforts and settle the case financially. Schlichtmann’s understanding of and investment in how the case is connected to larger environmental issues slowly unfolds as his firm spends all of their money and time fighting for this particular case. The film explores Schlichtmann’s moral transformation as he begins to realize that no amount of money can be compromised for justice. In the end, Schlichtmann’s firm is forced to settle with an amount that does not satisfy the community’s desire for transparency. However, after finding more evidence, the film culminates with the reopening of the case and EPA’s involvement in coming to a solution.

The plot of the film is based off of a true story of the 1981 case in Woburn, also known as People of Mass. vs. W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods.[2] The characters names are the same in the real life historical event, and the twelve leukemia deaths are also consistent with what really happened. While the events in the movie followed very closely and shed light on what occurred in the Woburn case, the result of making the movie has had confusing effects on the real life characters it was based around.[3] Anne Anderson, a mother who lost her son, reported that the success of the movie was difficult for her to process and enjoy because she, “can’t get past the reason that all this happened, and it’s still painful.”[4] The film is presented from the lawyer’s perspective and shows the complexities that Schlichtmann faces, while the tragedies that the Woburn families went through is only support for the story. This begs the question of whose story is more important to tell and would thrive best in entertainment. The film’s focus on Schlichtmann’s efforts in a way minimizes or hides the strength in the work of activists like Anderson, and other Woburn community members. The film gives the impression that “no one cared about the Anderson family’s, and Woburn’s, problems before Jan Schlichtmann swooped onto the scene,” while “in fact, Schlictmann arrived near the end, not the beginning, of the story.”[5] The dramatization of the transformation in Schlichtmann’s character deterred from the true story, as it is unlikely that human beings change in the typical way that the film presented.[6] Additionally, the film presents the concluding facts in a manner that is misleading to the public, tying the case up into a pretty bow for the audience, when in reality these actions did not carry out like this.[7] Much of reality can be misconstrued by the majority of the outside public getting only one piece of the story, even if that piece does consider multiple perspectives.

One of the water themes addressed throughout the film is how interconnected water is with health. The film shows how connected water is with health, by emphasizing the relationship between the contaminated drinking water and the leukemia cases in Woburn. It also portrays how health cannot be financially compromised. During the first meeting between Schlichtmann and the community members affected by the water contamination, a woman who had lost her child to leukemia made it very clear that her request was not for money but for an apology and more transparency regarding the current and future state of her community’s health. An interview with an employee at the company responsible for the toxic waste dumping, compellingly portrayed his concern for how the contaminated water would affect the health of his children. The employee’s willingness to go against the company he worked for, once he became aware of the health implications of their actions shows how known health risks move people to want to take action, especially when they are affecting others close to them.

Another water related-theme presented in the film is the difficulty of presenting scientific evidence, when it conflicts with the actions of larger and more powerful corporations. In order for Schlichtmann to prove his case, he had to take costly measures like hiring many geologists and scientists to examine how the toxic chemicals got into the wells. Even after doing this, the companies argued that it should be up to the jury to decide whether there was enough scientific evidence to continue with the case. The questions asked of the jury that determined the fate of the case were confusing and unclear, so while the scientific experts presented evidence, it did not translate to the public. It was easier for the companies to sow doubt regarding the correlation between the contaminated water and sickness by bringing up other “potential causes” that the companies were not involved in. This is similar to how many climate change deniers try to claim that the science is not settled in order to distract people from the evidence that says climate change exists.

The directors of A Civil Action, depicted the complexities of the case and the emotional challenges that Schlichtmann and his firm faced throughout it. Writing A Civil Action, was also a risk for the writer, Johnathan Harr and he was advised by many to avoid taking on this book for the sake of his career.[8] In many ways, this film is an exposure of the legal world that majority of the general public does not understand. By making the book into a film, the directors brought attention to the intricacies within the legal system to a larger population. Personally, I was challenged to think about what role the courts play in addressing environmental injustices. It tested my understanding of why cases settle and what the definition of success is and should be. A main takeaway that is emphasized throughout the entirety of the film is that civil cases are often trying to prove something and that trials ending in settlements alone are an example of the corruption that exists within the entire system. After writing this analysis, I am left with a greater curiosity surrounding what it actually takes to fight for justice and how the legal system is and should be involved.


[1] “A Civil Action (1998),” IMDb, Accessed November 27, 2016,

[2] “A Civil Action (1998),” IMDb, Accessed November 27, 2016,

[3] Kennedy, Dan, “A Civil Action: The real story,” Boston Phoenix, (December 18, 1998).

[4] Kennedy, Dan, “A Civil Action: The real story,” Boston Phoenix, (December 18, 1998).

[5] Kennedy, Dan, “A Civil Action: The real story,” Boston Phoenix, (December 18, 1998).

[6] Randall, Kate, “A Civil Action: a compelling tale loses much of its impact,” World Socialist Web Site, January 1999.

[7] Randall, Kate, “A Civil Action: a compelling tale loses much of its impact,” World Socialist Web Site, January 1999.

[8] Boynton, Robert, “Johnathan Harr,” New New Journalism, Accessed November 27, 2016,