`Civil Action' hits them right where they live

Pollution: Wagner's Point residents take hope and pain from new film, which showcases their worst fears.

January 11, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

The lights went down in the Towson Commons movie theater, the film "A Civil Action" rolled, and eight pairs of eyes stared at the screen uneasily, as if looking into a mirror.

Rod Sterry shook his head as a chemical company lawyer pressured a witness to change his story. Richard Rotosky nodded with approval as the families of leukemia victims told their cash-poor lawyer that his bankruptcy wasn't as important as their problems. And Debbie Hindla sighed as the film concluded with a sweeping shot of a smokestack.

"Home, sweet home," she said.

At a recent critics' screening of Disney's new film about the law and a polluted neighborhood, no one watched more critically than eight residents of Wagner's Point, a foul-smelling South Baltimore neighborhood surrounded by chemical plants and petroleum storage tanks.

None of the eight moviegoers had ever been to Woburn, the industrial Boston suburb examined in the movie and a best-selling book before it. But all immediately felt a kinship with the people on the screen.

In Woburn, after news of groundwater contamination and a series of unexplained leukemia deaths a decade ago, residents brought suit against three companies, including chemical giant W.R. Grace & Co. In Wagner's Point, after reports about polluted air and a string of suspicious cancer cases, locals last year asked the government and chemical industry to relocate residents and tear down 90 homes.

"A Civil Action" captures many subtle truths common to both cases. A scene with Robert Duvall, as an attorney for the chemical company, asking residents about eating bacon, smoking or pumping their own gasoline echoed public utterances of the Chemical Industry Council of Maryland regarding Wagner's Point.

The filmmakers also astutely portray the inadequacy of legal tools in fighting pollution, the near impossibility of linking pollution to poor health and cancer, the profound ambivalence among environmental victims about whether money represents justice.

"When I saw the people, I saw us," says Debbie Hindla. "And to be honest, I couldn't see the faces of the actors in the movie. I kept seeing my own kids."

Still, the movie left the Wagner's Point residents disappointed. In "A Civil Action," a complicated story about desperate, working-class people is made into a conventional legal thriller told from the point of view of the Porsche-driving, Ivy League-educated lawyer. There's little sign of another, perhaps fresher story, about the strange ways people behave when they live in fear of their own neighborhood, knowing silent killers may lurk in the air or water.

The film's brief portrayals of the Woburn residents show them as teary-eyed, outraged, vengeful, desperate for assistance. In real life, the emotions are more subdued.

Residents cling closer to their land, even if it is what's poisoning them, and typically resist outsiders who want to help. There is often a sense of despair and helplessness, but views of the chemical companies, portrayed as irredeemable polluters in the movie, are often more nuanced. They're at once sources of comfort and fear.

In Wagner's Point, a whole movie's worth of scenes demonstrating these conflicting feelings has been on display in recent years. Debbie Hindla watched her son's nose bleed uncontrollably after an accident at a chemical plant; later, she accepted a personal check from a plant executive to cover the doctor's bill. Harvey and Tom Smith have trained their homing pigeons to return to the neighborhood and can't bear to leave, even though their father relies on machines to help him breathe.

"A Civil Action" seemed to tap into Wagner's Point residents' feelings of hopelessness and fear of being ignored. Some were angry. Debbie Hindla fought back tears.

"I think they put too much emphasis on the money and the lawyers and the fights," says Hindla, a spokeswoman for Wagner's Point residents. "I don't think they gave you enough to really understand the people."

Such strong feelings about the movie are not surprising. The book it is based on, by Jonathan Harr, has become a primer for people involved in pollution fights.

Rose Hindla, the Wagner's Point coalition president (no relation to Debbie), keeps a copy in a drawer at the pawn shop where she works. People from the Woburn case, from lawyer Jan Schlichtmann to resident leader Anne Anderson, are sought-after environmental speakers. For the past two years, Gretchen Latowsky, director of the community group Woburn for a Cleaner Environment, was involved in a project to reduce pollution in South Baltimore.

The film's release also has prompted a quick response from those it portrays as villains. The Chemical Manufacturers Association and W.R. Grace & Co. have registered the Internet domain names www.civilaction.org and www.civil-action.com, strikingly similar to the official movie site, "www.acivilaction.com."

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