Michael Clayton (2007): Gilroy’s Legal Thriller, Starring George Clooney in Top Form

Modeled after the character-driven conspiracy melodramas of the 1970s, Michael Clayton represents Tony Gilroy’s decent directorial debut, but it is really an effective star vehicle for George Clooney, who gives an excellent performance.
Socially-conscious and dark in mood, Michael Clayton is an intelligent legal thriller for our times, a message picture in both the positive and negative senses of this term.

Both actor Clooney (who’s also a producer) and director-writer Gilroy have expressed admiration for films of the 1970s, arguably the last Golden Age of American cinema, with such highlights as Alan Pakula’s trilogy of “Klute,” “The Parallax View,” and “All the President’s Men,” and Sidney Lumet’s urban policiers, such as “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” and satires like “Network.”

What the filmmakers, in front and behind the cameras, didn’t realize is that all of the aforementioned movies, with their strong ethical and professional dilemmas and moral and emotional ambiguities, were zeitgeist works that reflected the cynicism and lack of trust in any institutional authority big business after a decade of numerous political assassinations, Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.

That’s not necessarily bad, except that older audiences will find “Michael Clayton”‘s conspiracies, dilemmas, arguments, and resolutions familiar and predictable. That said, new film shows a promising directing career for Gilroy, who up until now has been known as the scribe (or co-scribe) of the mega-successful “Jason Bourne” franchise.

More importantly, it flaunts George Clooney in one of his strongest, most fully-realized performances that deserves serious Oscar consideration at year’s end. Aging gracefully, Clooney, 45, is beginning to lose his surface glitz as a movie star and move in the direction of a star-character actor, which is perfect for this picture.

After playing all the major fall film festivals, such as Venice, Deauville, and Toronto, “Michael Clayton” bows theatrically October 5. It’s anyone’s guess how the “Honest Individual versus Big Corporate Law and Business,” a truly David and Goliath tale, will play with the public, but it’s a safe bet that the film’s low-key tone, lack of melodramatic, and modest scale will not translate into big box-office numbers.

The ensemble’s stellar cast is headed, in addition to George Clooney, by vet American director-actor Sydney Pollack, and two skillful brits, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson.

For at least half of the picture, the story is absorbing and intriguing until it begins to lose dramatic energy. Though a vehicle for Clooney, without whose participation it could not have been made, the modestly budgeted “Michael Clayton” did not offer the star his usual paycheck. But it did offer a meaty, challenging role, more in the vein of “Syriana” than the frivolous “Ocean’s Eleven” pictures, the last of which, “Ocean’s Thirteen” was an artistic and commercial disappointment.

The story unfolds as one long flashback, which begins and ends with Clayton’s car exploding in flames in the fields. Clooney plays the title role, an in-house fixer at one of New York’s largest corporate law firms. At the behest of the firms co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), Clayton, a former prosecutor from a family of cops, takes care of Kenner, Bach & Ledeens dirty work. He cleans up clients messes, handling anything from hit-and-runs and damaging stories in the press to shoplifting wives and crooked politicians. Nonetheless, though beginning to show signs of wear-out and discontent with his job, Clayton is still very much tied to the firm. (The picture could have been called “The Firm”).

At the agrochemical company U/North, the career of chief counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) rests on the settlement of the suit that Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is leading to a seemingly successful conclusion. When the firms top litigator, the brilliant Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has a breakdown and tries to sabotage the case, Marty Bach sends Clayton to handle what he sees as a disaster. In doing so, Clayton id forced to face head-on the reality of who is and what he is doing.

“Michael Clayton” is the kind of uneven picture in which the parts are more interesting than the whole, and in which individual characters are more engaging and complex than the morality yarn in which they are placed.

Take Michael Clayton, one of the richest, most dynamic roles Clooney has tackled, with which he must have felt strong emotional affinity, judging by his politics on screen (as actor of “Syriana” and director of “Good Night and Good Luck”) and off (campaigning for his father-politician and rooting for various liberal and democratic causes).

Clayton is not the type of hero who does the right thing. More importantly, the qualities that have served him well in the past–his abundant charisma, ease with clients, natural commanding authorityprove to be less useful as the story progresses. Thus, it’s easy to see what attracted the handsomer Clooney (who some critics compare to Cary Grant) to the part. He possesses spark, intelligence, and charm that make people believe hell make all their problems go awayor at least make the right decisions.

Clayton hails from a proud, working-class neighborhood, where his father was a cop and his brother Gene is now on the force. Since Michael is the first male in his family whos not a cop, his career choice has created distance between him and his family. But his career at his firm Ledeen has taken a toll. He barely has time to see his ten-year-old son, of whom he shares custody with his ex-wife, and even less time to see his ailing father who’s in a home.

Worse yet, Michael has a younger alcoholic brother, Timmy, who’s responsible for driving their once-promising business venture into the ground and stuck Michael with an $80,000 debt, a sum he must pay in less than a week to avoid bad consequences. Hence, when the saga begins, Clayton’s one hope for escaping the fixer business is his “walk-away” money, and when that money is gone, he’s left with no options.

The film’s best scenes are not between Clayton and his father or brother, but between him and Arthur, the senior litigating partner and lead defense architect for the U/North case. This may be a combined result of the writing and superlative of Tom Wilkinson, who can do not wrong in any part he plays (remember “In the Bedroom”) Is Arthur paranoid or just mad, self-righteous or delusional Probably all of the above.

Angry, temperamental and moody in a mode that recalls Peter Finch’s newscaster and prophet of doom in “Network,” Wilkinson shows glimpses of brilliance followed by moments of despair, often within the same interaction. The thespian makes his character’s crisis of conscience utterly compelling.

Gradually we find out that, like other lawyers, Arthur began in the law profession fresh out of school with strong ideals and noble intentions, but his years on the job have forced him to defend the indefensible and become increasingly detached from who he once was, all for monetary and other superficial rewards, like his wish to preserve a certain way of life. In other words, Arthur is a quintessential Sidney Lumet hero, a man who has let his soul be sullied and corruptedand is now in desperate need for redemption.

With a recently deceased wife and an estranged daughter, Arthur has no family and is a diagnosed as manic-depressive. But as one of the firms best litigators, he has been ceaselessly devoted to protecting U/North for the last six years. The unintended by-product of Arthurs choices manifests itself in ways beyond anyones control, even Claytons.

The film opens impressively with a confessional monologue from Arthur–a classic stream of consciousness speech, expressing a frenzied desire to communicate his epiphany to Clayton, the only man he trusts and respects. Arthur and Michael share a distinct bond solidified through years of working together at the firm. Clayton’s ability to handle crises effectively had saved Arthur from a prior breakdown eight years before.

Since then, Arthur had sort of agreed to take prescribed medication and to turn to Clayton in case of relapse. Indeed, crisis occurs when Arthur skips his meds without talking to Clayton and suffers a complete breakdown. In fact, he begins to construct a case for the other side. The film’s central question thus becomes: Will Arthur be defused in time to save the case, or will he construct a good case for the plaintiffs. And then: will Clayton be able to “fix” it

One of the film’s least developed parts is that of Karen Crowder, played by Tilda Swinton, who’s doing her best but is too intelligent and alert for such a role. Karen is an ambitious lawyer who’s just been promoted to U/Norths in-house chief counsel, thus assuming the responsibility of guaranteeing successful outcomes in the class action suit. It’s here that Gilroy disappoints-he makes Karen stand for the entire faceless corporation, too much of an obvious villain, even when she breaks down at the end.

Despite a number of faults, “Michael Clayton” is an intelligent and enjoyable film, a worthy reminder as a cautionary tale of the problems that continue to plague the lives of decent, honest Americans in and outside the workplace.

Cast
Michael Clayton – George Clooney
Arthur Edens – Tom Wilkinson
Karen Crowder – Tilda Swinton
Marty Bach – Sydney Pollack
Barry Grissom – Michael O’Keefe

Credits

A Warner release presented in association with Samuels Media and Castle Rock Entertainment of a Mirage Enterprises/Section Eight production.
Produced by Sydney Pollack, Steven Samuels, Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent.
Executive producers: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, James Holt, Anthony Minghella.
Directed, written by Tony Gilroy.
Camera: Robert Elswit.
Editor: John Gilroy.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Production designer: Kevin Thompson.
Art director: Clay Brown.
Set decorators: George De Titta Jr., Charles M. Potter, Paul Cheponis, Christine Mayer.
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards.
Sound: Michael Barosky.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 120 Minutes