A Civil Action (1998) Screenplay Analysis

A Civil Action (1998), should be the best film set in Massachusetts, and it should be considered one of the best courtroom dramas of all time. Yet it is neither, often a forgotten footnote in film history. Many of the film’s faults lie in the script. Let’s analyze it.

Script Formatting Notes

  • Draft Read: 6th Revision (Green) October 20, 1997
  • Type: Shooting
  • Page Count: 153
  • Reading Speed: Medium
  • Setting(s): Woburn, Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts, NYC
  • Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple months
  • Genre(s): Biopic, Detective
  • Theme(s): Law, Morality, Justice, Greed, Finding the truth
  • Protagonist Change: Moderate (debatable)

Overall Thoughts

The story: an attorney helps families impacted by contaminated drinking water. It’s not sexy, it’s not cool, and therein lies the primary hurdle the script has to overcome. The offenders aren’t Wall Street or companies we’ve all heard of like Nike, they were Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace and Company. Who? Exactly. The defendants? Hardworking middle-class people from Woburn. People that should be ultra-relatable. Yet, we never learn much about them. In fact, the Woburnites we most resonate with are the employees who poisoned the water and tried to cover it up.

Okay, so the plot, in my opinion, is already misguided, but it gets worse: We follow the attorney fighting for the families. Except for the fact that the attorney never really turns from an ambulance chaser to a righteous person fighting for good.

What about expanding the plot to serve as an example of our pay-to-play legal system and the shortsighted companies that get away with contaminating drinking water across the country. Or as one Woburn survivor put it:

Suffice it to say that my Woburn experience played a large part in shaping my interest to help in the struggle to protect the public’s health. My feeling is that we are suffering the all-embracing demands and short-sighted conveniences of post modern industrial society. The toxins are all around us and have been for many, many years. As Gary Cohen wrote recently …”There are hundreds of Woburns in the United States,…. Woburn has become a familiar script”…. The question now is, as a nation do we have the backbone to move out of the denial stage, and demand a healthy environment?

But the screenplay fails to do that too. What does it show? A small law firm plunge into insolvency, might I add, far too early in the script, in my opinion.

But there are positives. The use of prelaps and intercuts is done perfectly. It’s one of the best-formatted scrips I have read in regard to scene sequencing. The writer keeps things moving, which is hard for a courtroom drama.

It’s also a story worth telling. One that people should hear about. Yet, 30 years later, I would wager that most people in Eastern Massachusetts have never heard of it. There are no markers in Woburn, Massachusetts, as far as I can tell. All of the Google links to stories about the disaster and lawsuit go to old websites (such as the one above), or promotional articles from when the movie came out.

But even if it’s not the typical Hollywood edge-of-your-seat drama, as noted above, it’s a story that needs to be told, just as the attorney needed to take on the case. And maybe these David versus Goliath stories that involve big businesses as Goliaths just don’t quite sell: take a look at Promised Land (2012).


See above.


Jan, the attorney who takes on the case. Jan’s facial expressions are sometimes described as enigmatic, and that’s exactly what he is, because it’s never really clear if his intentions are money, helping others, or just being right. Facher is the attorney for one of the defendants, and if he cared at all he would come across as a villain. Then there is Gordon, Jan’s firms accountant, who far too early in the screenplay tries every desperate way possible to save the firm from bankruptcy.

Dialogue & Pacing

Dialogue and pacing, as noted in the Overall Thoughts section, were very well done. There were, however, some lines that didn’t quite hit the mark. For example, to describe Facher, here is Conway’s (one of the attorneys) lines (Page 31):


I thought we was some senile public defender who wandered into the wrong courtroom –


He’s chairman of the litigation department of one of the largest firms in Boston.

That should be a high-impact statement mic drop line, yet it comes across as rather weak.

Emotional Impact

The concept is important, especially in times when environmentalism is bigger than ever before. It should come as no surprise that WALL-E (2008), which shared similar themes, did exceptionally well. But yet another problem perhaps lies in the fact that this script is too real, too depressing, and has a rudderless protagonist.

Best Part of The Script

The settlement offer from Facher to Jan (Page 107), is a great example of high stakes dialogue being presented in a captivating way.