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A Civil Action (1998)

A Civil Action


Average Rating: 6.4/10
Reviews Counted: 68
Fresh: 41
Rotten: 27

Critics Consensus: Intelligent and unconventional.

Average Rating: 5.6/10
Reviews Counted: 15
Fresh: 7
Rotten: 8

Critics Consensus: Intelligent and unconventional.


Average Rating: 3.1/5
User Ratings: 21,167


Movie Info

Based on a true story about a small-time, self-possessed personal-injury attorney whose greed entangles him in a case that threatens to destroy him. The Woburn Case- which appears straightforward- instead evolves into a labyrinthine lawsuit of epic proportions where truth, if it can be found at all, resides not in the courtroom, but buried deep in a network of deceit and corruptions.

PG-13 (for some strong language)
Mystery & Suspense , Drama
Directed By:
In Theaters:
Jul 13, 1999


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Critic Reviews for A Civil Action

All Critics (70) | Top Critics (15) | Fresh (41) | Rotten (27) | DVD (10)

Based on a true story, this is an intelligent legal thriller, very much in the mode of 1970s issue-oriented films, that may be too subtle and complex for the damands of today's market.

Full Review… | June 1, 2006
Top Critic

Delivering the verdict two thirds into the movie is anti-climactic, while Schlichtmann's belated atonement feels beside the point.

Full Review… | February 9, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

As proficient a job as writer-director Steve Zaillian and his team do, A Civil Action has unmistakably unraveled by its close.

Full Review… | February 14, 2001
Los Angeles Times
Top Critic

A slick, shameless job that takes way too long to make its point (namely, we need the EPA).

Full Review… | January 1, 2000
Village Voice
Top Critic

Like John Grisham for grownups.

Full Review… | January 1, 2000
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic

Schlichtmann may have gone through this conversion in real life, but I just didn't buy it the way Zaillian presents it.

Full Review… | January 1, 2000
Top Critic

This is a case in which the material really is better served in book form.

Full Review… | November 22, 2009
TV Guide's Movie Guide

The movie becomes one more David-and-Goliath morality play.

Full Review… | July 30, 2007

While Travolta is passable as Schlichtmann, it is the outstanding work from Duvall, Macy and briefly Tony Shalhoub that drive the story.

Full Review… | December 6, 2005
Film Threat

I expected a harder hitting indictment against the uncaring power of corporate America. Instead, we get a middlin' courtroom drama that lacks the intensity of such films as the 1982 Sidney Lumet/Paul Newman film, The Verdict.

Full Review… | April 9, 2005
Reeling Reviews

the film is slightly overlong and the ending is anti-cathartic.

Full Review… | February 28, 2005

... hints at the complex moral issues that vein the story.

Full Review… | February 5, 2005
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

A legal drama that doesn't follow the usual Hollywood-John Grisham formula.

Full Review… | July 6, 2004

neatly avoids slipping into melodrama, and despite plenty of niggling minor faults along the way the movie finally succeeds. With a more comfortably cast lead actor it could have been even more powerful.

Full Review… | July 31, 2003
Kalamazoo Gazette

The film is so daring because it features a protagonist that we cannot and do not sympathize with.

Full Review… | May 22, 2003
Film Blather

My only real problem is with the script.

Full Review… | February 8, 2003
Film Quips Online

More complex, subtle, perplexing and memorable than the usual courtroom theatrics.

Full Review… | October 15, 2002
Cincinnati Enquirer

It's not bad, but with everything else out there, I won't recommend it.

Full Review… | August 21, 2002
Movie Habit

Just when it seemed the courtroom drama was suffering a fatal case of John Grisham, A Civil Action" rescues the genre.

Full Review… | July 2, 2002
Northwest Herald (Crystal Lake, IL)

Though the plot plays largely by the numbers, Zaillian treats the material with a welcome level of maturity that manages to sustain interest even when the storyline doesn't.

Full Review… | June 5, 2002
Boxoffice Magazine

This David versus Goliath courtroom drama has just the right mixture of legal debate and emotional vibrancy.

Full Review… | March 3, 2002
Spirituality and Practice

Well, I know a movie is not worth seeing if I can't work up the energy to write about it for two weeks.

Full Review… | June 14, 2001

A fine script from director Steven Zaillian gives all involved plenty to chew.

Full Review… | April 17, 2001

Part of the film's problem may be in Travolta, who is never entirely convincing, and this works against a film that is trying to make the transformation of his character into its centerpiece.

Full Review… | February 27, 2001
Q Network Film Desk

Audience Reviews for A Civil Action

"Schindler's List" scribe Steven Zaillian seems to craft meticulous pieces of work. It's hard to put into words but his films seem to have substance. He doesn't try to cut corners, which is precisely his downfall here. There's too much weight that, despite an excellent beggining, it gets bogged down and ultimately hoisted by it's own petard.
A group of parents, whose children have died via pollution, enlist Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), a hot-shot ambulance chasing lawyer to fight their case against two huge corporations. But Schlichtmann soon realises that he may have met his match in opposing lawyer, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), with defeat possibly spelling financial ruin for him and his firm.
This was only Zaillain's second film behind the camera and although there's much to admire, he still has much to learn. The problem he has, is with the pace. It was the same mistake he made later with his star studded "All the Kings Men". He has amassed an abundance of quality actors fleshed them out with substantial characterisations, yet they don't get a chance to shine. There is too much legal jargon going on for any of them to leap to the forefront. Duvall and Travolta duel with the viewers delight but the impressive supporting ensemble are wasted. Still, it's a cut above a John Grisham adaptation and if you don't mind a bit of legal mumbo jumbo and consider yourself a fan of slow talking legal drama's, then this will certainly appeal.
Based on a true story and treads a similiar path that "Erin Brockovich" would tread a couple of years later. I'd have to say that the Steven Soderbergh/Julia Roberts film is the better of the two though.

Mark Walker

Super Reviewer


A Civil Action is a pretty good court-room drama but without the usual court-room drama cliches. It's more of a non-bullshit version that shows the reality of a court case (well, a little more realistic) and how it can all go wrong. I have to say I find these types of films more interest since I've been a juror. Better than average with a cast to die for, so definitely worth a watch!

Anthony Lawrie

Super Reviewer


Ok Court drama.

Jeremy Smith

Super Reviewer


A disappointingly pulse-less legal drama that features an incredibly dull lead performance from John Travolta, despite the rest of the cast being fairly on their game. The main problem that undermines the film is the fact that the startling transformation that Travolta's character undergoes does not for one minute feel genuine. Despite this film being based on a true story, it's both the script's and Travolta's fault for not spending more time on why this character changed so suddenly and gave up so much. Instead, it gives us a brief two minute scene to convince us, which it doesn't, and instead goes full-steam ahead with the case when it hasn't even achieved a firm grasp of the basic fundamentals that make these sort of films compelling or watchable. That said, it's not a bad movie, everything else is relatively well done, but the fact that I didn't believe for one second in Travolta's character is what brought it down to "not so great" territory for me.

Dan Schultz
Dan Schultz

Super Reviewer

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