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Hollywood vs. the Truth


Hollywood vs. the Truth

December 23, 1998
Legal ReformOther

The publicists at Disney/Touchstone have been collecting accolades for the purported nuance and subtlety of their new courtroom drama, "A Civil Action." Daily Variety admires its "moral ambiguity" and lack of "clear-cut heroes and villains," while the Hollywood Reporter finds it "complex" and "sophisticated." To New York Times correspondent Carey Goldberg, the film's version of reality "is not a comfortable or a simple one."

If the film really does transcend the good-guy-bad-guy genre, someone forgot to tell the Houston Chronicle (hero John Travolta "duels with two ruthless megacorporations over a lethal chemical spill") or George magazine (action filed after "children have been devastated by industriai pollution").

Ambiguity? Moral complication? Enviro campaigners are already planning tie-in events to rally the troops, while The Progressive is hoping the movie (Robert Redford, co-producer) will revive trial lawyers' image and fuel public anger at big business.

Greyscale cinematography aside, "A Civil Action's" vaunted moral complexity consists mainly in assigning its hero some foibles and his chief antagonist some good points. When you reach the issue over which they fought for eight years—did the defendants' actions, in fact, kill eight residents of Woburn, Mass.? —evenhandedness is nowhere in sight. The film encourages viewers to assume that of course the victim-families deserved to nail the corporate defendants—a proposition disputable at the time (the Woburn plaintiffs never reached trial on the ultimate issue, and fared relatively poorly on interim jury findings), which looks even more dubious in retrospect.

To be sure, oversimplification is inevitable in trying to recount the tangled lawsuit detailed in Jonathan Harr's bestseller, or the history that led up to it. Long the American capital of leather-tanning, a famously blightful trade, Woburn later diversified into insecticides and soon sported chromium lagoons and an arsenic pit to go with its mounds of discarded animal waste ("remediated" in recent years). In 1958 an engineer warned that the Aberjona River was far too polluted to be used for drinking water, yet town officials a few years later ignored his report and sank two wells. Residents at once complained of the water's foul color, taste and odor. There followed a "cluster" of leukemia cases within a few years centered on East Woburn. The wells were closed after they were found to contain high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent.

Attorney Jan Schlichtmann, writes Mr. Harr, "could not even pronounce the names of the chemicals in the Woburn wells, but he felt instinctively that they probably had caused the cluster of leukemias. "A reasonable enough supposition, you'd think. Yet instinct is a poor guide in assessing residential cancer clusters, which despite intense study and popular assumptions remain stubbornly difficult to link to synthetic chemicals in the air, soil and water. When not arising from viruses or other contagion, most if not all such clusters seem to be the result of simple chance.

But Mr. Schlichtmann (played in the movie by Mr. Travolta) fixed early on a TCE theory of the case. He proceeded on the families' behalf to sue not the city, nor any of various locally owned polluters, but the two deep-pocket national companies on the scene, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace (as welI as a third company that settled before trial).

Both defendants argued that the TCE in the wells was not theirs, Beatrice because its tannery had no record of having used the substance, Grace because its packaging-machinery plant was too far away. But the companies' ultimate and more important defense was that the concentrations of TCE found in the wells were far too low to have caused the health effects alleged. The defendants lined up a parade of distinguished experts to back up this assertion, and those experts' opinion has worn well with time: Later studies have steadily lessened fears of a link between TCE and leukemias or other human cancers.

The film's pivotal scene on this point strikes a false, tinny note. Grace's lawyer, trying to buck up a doubtful employee-witness, is shown reassuring him that the well water didn't cause the leukemia. "How do you know?" the worker asks. "I just do," the lawyer (played by Bruce Norris) replies in petulant tones. The preview audience laughed in contempt—the movie's one laugh line—and the damage was done, notwithstanding a token comment or two later about questions of concentration and dosage.

Readers of the book will have trouble recalling the "I just do" line, for a good reason: It isn't in the book. William Cheeseman, the Grace lawyer portrayed in the scene, says it never happened.

In some respects, the one-sidedness of the film merely reflects that of the book, a plaintiff's-eye view that made little effort to lay out the defense logic in any sustained way. Still, it was tempting to make a game of catching the filmmakers adding their own little flourishes. For instance, when a plant manager testifies that the one-time dump site is going to be rededicated to conservation use, Mr. Travolta impresses the jury by retorting that it won't be easy, since not a living thing grows on the land—a notion contradicted by the book, by real life, and even by earlier scenes of the movie, which showed ordinary vegetation.

Like the book, the film does well at capturing many important "ground-level" truths about litigation: its psychological wear and tear as fortunes veer from one camp to the other, its war-like escalation of expense, its witness-coaching and perjuries, its delays and uncertainties. "It's hard to recall a recent American movie that has disclosed with such bluntness the inner, shabby workings of the legal profession," says Variety. Protagonist Schlichtmann himself "now sees the kind of take-no-prisoners litigation he practiced in the Woburn case as a great mistake, and says as much at public speaking engagements," reports Ms. Goldberg in the Times: "I just came to appreciate how wasteful and destructive litigation can be."

Nothing, however, justifies the film's shabby treatment of Mr. Cheeseman, a well-spoken partner at Boston's Foley, Hoag & Eliot who gets portrayed in the film (but not the book) as a figure of derision, an ethically inert bumbler who can't keep fellow lawyers from making fun of his name and is heard mumbling snobbishly that "there was a Cheeseman on the Mayflower" (the real Cheeseman is the grandson of immigrants). The filmmakers, as it happened, were pumping up the role of Beatrice lawyer Jerome Facher (Hale & Dorr) into a bigger and more sympathetic character than it had been in the book, thus providing Robert Duvall with a juicy acting opportunity; perhaps to maintain some sort of ecological balance, they trashed his counterpart at Grace.

A company as big as Disney, it seems, can, Gulliver-like, hold named real-life people up to the light and turn them this way and that as scriptwriting whimsy strikes, knowing they're essentially powerless (even the lawyers among them) to stay out of the way of the sport. Mr. Cheesernan takes this with good humor, which is more than many would do in his place.

Moral complexity indeed.