Director : Tony Gilroy
Screenplay : Tony Gilroy
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Tom Wilkinson (Arthur Edens), Sydney Pollack (Marty Bach), Tilda Swinton (Karen Crowder), Merritt Wever (Anna), Austin Williams (Henry Clayton), Ken Howard (Don Jefferies)
In Michael Clayton, the searing directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy, Clooney looks tired. Erased from his visage are the confident swagger of Danny Ocean and the comical pompousness of Everett McGill, replaced by dark circles under his eyes and an air of barely resigned defeat. From the first frame you get the sense that he is a man who is not only on the edge, but has been there for quite a while. Clooney's title character is a “fixer,” although someone at one point refers to him as a “miracle worker” and he refers to himself as a “janitor.” Clayton is an attorney in a huge corporate law firm, and his job is to work damage control on the backside, cleaning up various messes and quietly ensuring that everything looks like business as usual. He has his own personal messes, as well, including a troubled brother who is deep in debt to some very bad people and his own struggles with gambling.
Clayton is handed one of his biggest challenges when one of the law firm's top litigators, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkins), goes apparently mad during a deposition, taking off all his clothes and running naked through a parking lot. That would be bad enough, but what makes it worse is that Arthur is the chief architect of the defense of U/North, a massive agrochemical corporation who is facing a $3 billion class-action suit because of a lethal weed killer it produces. The suit has been dragging on for six years, and if it goes south it will take U/North and Clayton's law firm with it, something his boss, senior partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), will do anything to avoid.
It is Clayton's job to clean up the mess--get Arthur, who is manic-depressive, back on his medication and assure Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the lead counsel for U/North, that everything is just fine. However, the deeper he stumbles into this multi-billion-dollar quagmire, the more he begins to question not only Arthur's madness--is he truly sick, or are his rantings about having protected the powerful and guilty at the expense of the weak and innocent an explosion of unbridled and therefore dangerous truth?--but his own role in the cover-up. Arthur is obsessed with a young midwestern girl named Anna (Merritt Wever), who is only one of hundreds who signed onto the class-action suit, but who represents for him precisely the kind of person who suffers the most under the boot of corporate greed. She represents simplicity, while he has been working for a convoluted system that rewards economic tyranny.
Tony Gilroy, who had a hand in writing all three of the Bourne films, has structures of power on the mind, and he builds Michael Clayton into a scathing indictment of global corporate malfeasance. There is no one villain in the film, but rather a pervasive strain of power-mongering and protectionism that infects everyone involved. We sense that Pollack's Marty Bach is willing to do anything to keep his law firm on top (and to protect a pending merger with a British firm), thus his morals are already so deeply compromised that we don't need to know the specifics of what he knows and doesn't know. Similarly, Tilda Swinton's Karen Crowder is not above hired murder if that's what it takes, but she is clearly someone who is in over her head; when we first see her in what turns out to be a scene taking place four days after the majority of the narrative, she is quivering in a bathroom, literally about to burst with her own sense of guilt. She is not a bad person, but rather a weak one who allows her ambition to bully her into doing bad things.
More than any film I can think of in recent years, Michael Clayton harkens back to those hard-edged, paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, and it may be one of the best since Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). Gilroy's style is direct and cunning without drawing undo attention to itself. He has a crafty sense of montage and how to manipulate time to suit his story's ends. (Amazingly, we see a car bomb go off twice, and while the first time it is a shock, the second time creates a fever pitch of suspense even though we know exactly what's going to happen and when.) There is something indelibly artful about the way he uses unmotivated voice-overs and slightly abstract images to set the tone, then goes right into the heart of thriller territory without turning his back on the bigger picture.
Michael Clayton simultaneously punches you in the gut and in the cranium because it never sacrifices the thrust of the narrative to its moral posturing. Like the best socially minded filmmakers, Gilroy consistently finds intriguing and meaningful ways to incorporate the film's message into its story so that the two work together, rather than against each other; in other words, it's not one of those well-meaning message movies that turns into a chore to sit through. And, while Gilroy may deliver what appears to be a climactic moment of justice served in the final reel, he leaves us with a long take of Clooney in the back seat of a cab, his hollowed-out eyes and silent stare telling us everything we need to know about the brief, bittersweet elation of winning one small battle in a losing war.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Warner Bros.