Michael Clayton

October, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Tony Gilroy

Starring:George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack

Ever since 1970, when director Robert Altman dazzled audiences with MASH, dialogue in American movies has functioned primarily as handmaiden to a film’s visual images. Altman’s actors used lots of words of course, but he often made it difficult to grasp their meaning because of overlapping noises deliberately placed on the soundtrack to mimic the way we miss so much of the content of daily life. Altman’s technique, (evident in his subsequent work - McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Gosford Park, etc.) gave actors and directors permission to rely far less on the spoken word than had previously been the case, especially in thrillers. That’s not to say Hollywood hasn’t delivered any wonderfully written scripts since then; the results have occasionally been outstanding, but more frequently simply mediocre. First-time director Tony Gilmore may just have initiated a counter-trend with this articulate thriller you have to hear to believe; it’s chock full of words, crisply delivered and well worth listening to. 

Like his Pulitzer prize-winning father Frank, Tony Gilroy began his career writing screenplays in various genres, (Dolores Claiborne, Armageddon, Proof of Life) before landing the task of bringing novelist Robert Ludlum’s spy Jason Bourne to the screen in the trilogy that bears his name. Given the near-obsession with minimal dialogue employed in those films, the rush of crisply articulated lines in Clayton comes as a joyous surprise and fun begins when the movie starts with a brilliantly deranged voice-over delivered by Tom Wilkinson behind a completely blank screen. Listening to words in the movies hasn’t been this much fun in a long time.    

George Clooney plays the title character, a “fixer” in one of New York’s white-shoe law firms, the go-to guy when situations arise that require a quiet circumvention of the law to accommodate the peccadilloes of partners and wealthy clients. He’s the product of a working class family, son of a retired New York City policeman, brother to a detective currently on the force and he’s also the family’s star, the upwardly mobile sibling who worked his way out of a blue collar environment into a stint with the district attorney’s office before joining a prestigious firm that caters to America’s corporate elite. Yet despite the conservative suits he wears and the imported car he drives, Michael lives on the margins of respectability; he hasn’t made partner, endures thinly masked disdain from many in his firm and finances his divorce, gambling habit and a disastrous restaurant investment by borrowing from a loan-shark. 

When Arthur Eden, (Tom Wilkinson) the firm’s chief litigator, suffers a mental breakdown in the final stages of defending U/North, (a global agro-chemical company with a creepy resemblance to Monsanto) Michael’s deployed to baby-sit the wayward attorney. Arthur’s stopped taking his medication for manic-depression and Michael soon learns why; Eden’s suffered a crisis of conscience about U/North’s apparent suppression of evidence concerning one of the company’s pesticides that may have led to the deaths of the farmers using it. Marty Bach, (Sidney Pollack) the head of Michael’s firm, wants Eden corralled before his errant behavior destroys the firm’s pending merger; Karen Crowder, (Tilda Swinton) U/North’s general counsel, wants Eden off the case and all his files turned over to someone with fewer scruples. How will this quartet of legal professionals square the circle of their opposing interests and what tactics will they employ to do so?

All four of these performances have a gem-like quality; Pollack’s world-wise, (and world-weary) managing partner is as adept at coddling clients as he is at massaging the egos of his fellow attorneys and Gilroy provides dialogue for him that perfectly captures the fragile camaraderie of the firm’s batch of ruthlessly self-centered lawyers. As the ranting litigator in search of a moral compass, Wilkinson delivers a series of intricately-crafted running commentaries on the professional obligations of officers of the court, concluding that at the end of the day, he and Michael are simply janitors, paid to clean up the fecal droppings of those who pay their substantial fees. 

Tilda Swinton should be nominated for a supporting Oscar as Karen; with over 4 decades of personal knowledge of corporate general counsels, I can attest that this quirky actress nails the species and its unique capacity to exhibit an apparent calm which masks inner turmoil born of utter terror at the possibility that others will discover the secrets they’ve been charged with keeping. Gilroy gives Swinton loads of words to say, which she repeats in fits of nervous rehearsal while staring at herself in mirrors that permit her to simultaneously evaluate her wardrobe choices; this combination of verbal and visual self-critiquing provides Swinton the opportunity to deliver a devastating portrait of a person so fixated on her public performances that she loses her personal identity. Her Karen is delicate, self-conscious…and when pressured, capable of frightful decisions.

Gilroy’s intricately constructed story is tailor-made for Clooney’s unique blend of good looks and intelligence and the actor employs an aura of quiet resignation at the person Michael Clayton’s become. Clooney is Hollywood’s contemporary Cary Grant, a combination of handsome masculinity, suave self-assurance and just the right amount of mysterious reserve, both on screen and off. Both are movie stars in the classic Hollywood mold, but Clooney has managed his career with a shrewd eye towards roles that allow him to intersperse the kind of romantic leads that made Grant famous with more thoughtful productions, (Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, O Brother Where Art Thou?) which provide an opportunity for Clooney to display a range and intelligence that Grant was never given the chance to demonstrate. Unlike his legal colleagues, Clayton knows exactly who he is, warts and all, and it’s Clooney’s willingness to once again portray a rather unsympathetic character that makes his performance so much fun to watch. Clayton can manipulative with the best of them, but the depth of his parental, familial and professional relationships keep hauling this cynical facilitator of the establishment’s bigwigs back to a path which, if not straight and narrow, is at least moral enough to permit the muted satisfaction he displays in the film’s final frames.

With art director Clay Brown providing all the walnut-paneled elegance one would expect in this rarified atmosphere and cinematographer Robert Elswit deftly using New York City’s shadows, fog and rain-slicked streets to perfect mood-enhancing effect, Michael Clayton delivers the goods and emerges as a handsomely-mounted thriller with the intelligence to first establish interesting characters before putting them in harm’s way. The results may not be an especially profound commentary on the ethics of big corporations or the law firms they employ, but it’s damn exciting entertainment.

The verdict? Skip this and you’ve missed one of the best movies of the year. 



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