A Civil Action

Justice has its price
Justice has its price


D: Steven Zaillian

Paramount / Touchstone / Wildwood (Scott Rudin, Robert Redford & Rachel Pfeffer)

US 🇺🇸 1998

115 mins


W: Steven Zaillian [based on the book by Jonathan Harr]

DP: Conrad L. Hall

Ed: Wayne Wahrman

Mus: Danny Elfman

John Travolta (Jan Schlichtmann), Robert Duvall (Jerry Facher), William H. Macy (James Gordon), Tony Shalhoub (Kevin Conway), Kathleen Quinlan (Anne Anderson), John Lithgow (Judge Walter J. Skinner), Bruce Norris (William Cheeseman), James Gandolfini (Al Love)

John Travolta stars as ambitious, but morally ambiguous personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, whose cases are regularly settled out of court, making a fortune for his small firm.

He becomes aware of a small community in Massachusetts, where the residents suspect their drinking water has been contaminated by two local businesses, resulting in several members of the town suffering from poor health, including some who have contracted cancer.

Initially, Schlichtmann is reluctant to take on the case, but upon learning that the two businesses involved are owned by multi-million dollar conglomerates, he and the rest of his firm turn their full attentions to it, hoping that the case is settled out of court promptly, but find themselves close to bankruptcy the longer it drags on.

Screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapted Jonathan Harr’s non-fiction book for the screen and took on directorial duties himself, amassing a brilliant ensemble with John Travolta at the forefront, but Robert Duvall steals the show as a suave corporate lawyer, but the best acting performance from the entire cast must surely be from James Gandolfini as a working man with a conscience.

Any film lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall is going to look great, but I do feel that Zaillian is a much better screenwriter than he is a director, and over the entire running time, there rather disappointingly isn’t much courtroom for a courtroom drama.

Similar themes were also explored a couple of years later for Erin Brockovich, and again in 2019 for Dark Waters, all of which are very different takes on similar subject matter.


Robert Duvall & John Travolta in A Civil Action
Robert Duvall & John Travolta in A Civil Action