Movie revives city's buried memories

Residents of Woburn, Mass., express mixed feelings about a Hollywoodmovie that is based on a town tragedy.

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Donna robbins has seen "A Civil Action" three times. And she says she needs to see the movie at least once more.

The film is set in her home of Woburn, Mass., and the story it tells is her own.

Hollywood doesn't come to Boston very often. A year ago, Beantown crowds cheered for the Southie janitor in "Good Will Hunting," and rejoiced when two Cambridge natives brought home an Oscar for the working-class hit.

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This time is different. "A Civil Action" is based on a tragedy. In 1986, eight families sued two companies, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, for dumping chemicals in the city's drinking water, which they said led to the deaths of five children and one adult. Beatrice was found not guilty, while W.R. Grace settled for $8 million, with no admission of wrongdoing.

"The movie really gets the message across how the judicial system really didn't help us," says Ms. Robbins, who lost her son Robbie in 1976. She has relived the experience in countless interviews, a bestselling book by local author Jonathan Harr, and now on the big screen in a movie that relegates her and the other parents to minor characters.

While many in this city of 35,000 take a philosophical - not to say stoic - approach to the national scrutiny, there is some concern the movie will stir up bad memories and saddle the city with a reputation it's long outgrown.

"There's a good understanding that there's going to be some stigma," says Mayor Robert Dever, who's been so bombarded by media calls that he automatically begins interviews by cataloguing where every drop of the city's drinking water comes from. "We're just kind of waiting and seeing how it plays out," he says.

AT the first screening of "A Civil Action" in Woburn, while most moviegoers called the film excellent, locals were disappointed that the plot did not spend more time on the families. The story revolves around the legalities of the case and centers on Jan Schlichtmann, the personal-injury lawyer (played by John Travolta) who bankrupted himself and his firm on the Woburn case. "It's like the people were insignificant," said Joan Lawton, who lives in next-door Winchester, after the Woburn screening. "That's what kind of baffles you," agreed Cambridge resident Joyce Chandler, who thought the film should have been dedicated to the city.

The film portrays a city that no longer exists, residents and the mayor say. Today, Woburn is a bustling city surrounded by office parks, malls, and a multiplex, making the transition from industrial town to high-tech bedroom community. While Woburn's leather-making history dates to 1642, the only tanners you're likely to see today are the high school football team. "[The movie] kind of emphasized the gritty, working-class thing," says Mayor Dever. "And that's fine. It's not accurate, though."

Residents were more blunt. "They made the town look dinky," says Ellen, who declined to give her last name.

While filming took place in and around Boston, none of the movie was shot in Woburn. Director Stephen Zaillain has said there was some concern the filmmakers wouldn't be welcome. "That certainly wasn't our attitude," says Dever. "We were kind of waiting to hear from them."

For many, the movie brought up old memories. "I grew up a couple of towns over," says Jim Bresnahan as he walks out of the Woburn theater. "When we were children, the story was: Don't ever drink the water in Woburn."

But for Robbins, it doesn't take Hollywood coming to town to remind her of her son. "It's been an overwhelming week," she said, after returning from a town meeting designed to use Hollywood's klieg lights to spotlight other cities grappling with environmental crises. Like most of the eight families, she still lives in Woburn, in the same home. And like most of them, she drinks bottled water - even though the city now has some of the most closely monitored drinking water in the country.

"To know how this case started, and to see how it grew and became a book and now a movie ... it's just overwhelming," she adds.

Her hope is that the film helps other people stand up to corporations that could be poisoning their communities. "Hopefully, there will be a cleaner world from all this," says Robbins.

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