At the Movies: Big Corporations are Big Polluters in ‘A Civil Action’


Every day the commuter train I work on passes through a vast stretch of wasteland in Woburn, a suburb of Boston. I’ve been told these acres of gravel dotted with what look like sewer covers are a Superfund cleanup site.

When I recently heard a story on local public radio about a new movie involving that toxic-waste case in Woburn, I looked forward to learning how several families whose drinking water was poisoned had fought for recognition and retribution for their suffering.

The film, “A Civil Action,” does reveal some facts about the case, and exposes a legal system that blatantly protects industries for whom environmentally sound waste management is an unreasonable burden on profits.

But the human-interest story of struggle, loss, and disillusionment is not that of families losing children to leukemia. The central drama is instead about a small law firm’s descent into bankruptcy. And this isn’t the price paid by a spunky, altruistic legal team taking on Big Business and being trampled along with their small-town clients; it’s the cost of poor judgment more than anything else.

The drinking water in Woburn had tasted foul for many years, and the town had experienced a high incidence of leukemia and other illnesses, before two wells were discovered to be contaminated with industrial solvents in 1979.

Later that year several large toxic-waste sites were found, and it was clear to many residents that local industries were responsible. Eight of the families whose children had died organized themselves to seek legal help in finding the perpetrators.

In “A Civil Action” these families claim not to seek any compensation beyond an apology from the companies whose gross negligence caused widespread illness and death. Their case thus holds no interest for Jan Schlictmann (played by John Travolta), the slick, cynical personal-injury lawyer to whom they appeal.

But when some casual research reveals to him two possible culprits, Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace & Co., he sees an opportunity for enormous gain. For some time, these major corporations had been operating plants in Woburn that involved the use of solvents.

Schlictmann makes a calculated guess and eventually stakes all the firm’s assets on the chance that the two companies can be proven to have contaminated the water supply, and be made to pay multimillion-dollar settlements. He hires a team of engineers to conduct a thorough analysis of the waste sites, and begins deposing witnesses.

Perhaps it is the testimony of his clients describing their children’s deaths that softens the lawyer’s heart; we don’t actually witness his transformation. He may have been moved by the plight of one plant worker who is caught between the choices of “ratting out” fellow workers he’d seen dumping waste, and allowing the health problems of his and his neighbors’ children to go unavenged.

These characters, their stories, and the brief, realistic glimpses we get of their lives are the most affecting part of the movie. And apparently their testimony carries enough pathos to balance out the formidable weight behind the two companies’ lawyers.

Despite the untold wealth of Grace and Beatrice, the venerability of their law firms, and the cozy Old Boy relationship between the corporate attorneys and the judge, the Woburn families’ case turns out to be winnable. The companies seem ready to make a settlement.

But for some reason, perhaps that Schlictmann’s judgment is clouded by sentimentality, he loses his feel for the stakes and gambles of the law game, and asks for a settlement far beyond what the companies would think of paying.

It’s admirable that he demands so many millions-including funds for research and $1.5 million per year per family for 30 years-but the request is so huge as to be counterproductive. The company lawyers are angered, and their friendly judge skews the proceedings of the trial so the witnesses cannot testify.

Without that leverage, Schlictmann is defeated. Beatrice Foods was found not responsible, and to this day has not had to pay any kind of recompense. W. R. Grace settled for $8 million, which amounted to only $375,000 per family once the lawyers covered their expenses.

“But they’ll clean it up, right?” one of the disappointed fathers asks upon learning the outcome. No, this was not a condition of the settlement.

Eventually, Schlictmann persuaded the EPA to take up the case, and the Woburn site was cleaned up with federal funds. The two companies have gone virtually unpunished for an enormous environmental crime.

Meanwhile, Schlictmann and his partners lose their fortunes and go their separate ways. He is left a scruffy tenement dweller, pecking away at a manual typewriter in pursuit of another environmental-damage case. One assumes this has all been a valuable and ennobling experience for the former shark, although the script makes surprisingly little dramatic use of that possibility.

All the characters are well developed and wonderfully acted, and yet this film has a hollow, anticlimactic ending: I now know more than I ever wanted to know about the wrong characters.

Jonathan Harr, who wrote the book on which “A Civil Action” is based, missed a great opportunity when he built its plot around the lawyers rather than their clients. He chose to tell the story of how a flashy young man lost his designer clothes and condo, and leaves the audience to form only a shadowy impression of the tragedy wreaked upon eight working-class families by two profit-hungry corporations.

Hollywood continues its fiddling while Rome burns.

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