A Civil Action

A Civil Action follows a well-established formula in presenting a true story based on a well-researched book by journalist Jonathan Harr: Big business (Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace) has harmed humble individuals, causing death and disease, by dumping toxic waste into the drinking water of Woburn, Massachusetts. Jan Schlichtmann, a lawyer who at first was reluctant to accept the case, goes through a personal transformation as he decides to go for broke to aid the families. Indeed, he becomes broke while clever lawyers representing the corporations maneuver an acquittal. In desperation, Schlichtmann sends the documents to the Environmental Protection Agency, which finds another basis to sue the two errant corporations, which have to pay an enormous fine, the largest amount ever assessed for environmental damage in New England. As the film ends, we are told that Schlichtmann is currently representing New Jersey plaintiffs in a similar suit. During the film we hear explanations about the legal process—opposing lawyers settle most such suits out of court, judges make arbitrary rulings in order to shorten the proceedings, juries decide cases based on personalities of the lawyers, and similar points are made to show that money rather than human rights is paramount in most litigation of this sort. The film, directed by Steven Zaillian, has been nominated both as an exposé, bringing facts about the case and the legal process to the attention of filmviewers, and for promoting consciousness of human rights. MH