By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 13, 2007)
The late great Paddy Chayefsky would surely be pleased by the opening salvo of searing verbiage that launches writer-director Tony Gilroy’s superb new legal thriller, Michael Clayton. The fine British actor Tom Wilkinson nearly walks off with the movie before the opening credits are even finished rolling with a magnificently performed voice-over rant that recalls Howard Beale’s “cleansing moment of clarity” in Network.
Wilkinson portrays Arthur Edens, a crack lawyer and senior partner for a prestigious New York corporate law firm who is, well, cracking up. On the eve of closing a case he has been working on for several years on behalf of U-North, an agrichemical company faced with a class-action lawsuit, Edens suffers a Dostoevkskian meltdown and suddenly decides to side with the plaintiffs and publicly expose his client’s turpitude in the matter.
As you can probably imagine, with many millions of dollars at stake and the reputations of both the corporation and law firm on the line, there are some very powerful, pissed off people sitting in dark boardrooms, scrambling for a quick and decisive solution to their “problem”. Enter the film’s title character, Michael Clayton (George Clooney, in a first-rate performance). Clayton, who is on the payroll as an attorney, is in actuality the firm’s “fixer”, who cynically refers to himself as a “janitor” (he’s not a “cleaner”, like Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, but akin to Harvey Keitel’s “Mr. Wolfe” in Pulp Fiction).
Clayton cleans up other people’s messes, but cannot get his own life in order; he’s divorced and up to his eyes in gambling debts and bad investments. And, like his friend Arthur, he’s having some primal doubts about the moral and ethical ambiguities involved with what he does for a living. His immediate concern, however, is to salvage this potential disaster for the firm by coaxing Arthur back to reality. Arthur may have a screw loose, but he hasn’t lost any of his shrewd lawyer chops, so he won’t be swayed easily. Still, Clayton is sure that if he can just get him back on his meds, he’ll come around.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to Clayton, the head of U-North’s legal department (Tilda Swinton) has already lost patience with the situation at hand and enlisted a pair of much more sinister “fixers” to zero in and eliminate the problem (with extreme prejudice). As the situation becomes more insidiously deadly and the stakes become extremely high, Clayton, ever the compulsive gambler, faces the ultimate moral choice: he could risk his life and do the right thing, or he could play it safe- at the risk of losing his soul.
Gilroy extrapolated on this moral dilemma previously in his screenplay for the 1997 Taylor Hackford film, The Devil’s Advocate, in which he pitted fledgling lawyer Keanu Reeves’ naïve idealism against senior partner Al Pacino’s devilishly Faustian temptations. In Michael Clayton, the situation isn’t so black and white; ethics and principals cast minimal light in this shadowy noir world of boardroom conspiracies.
This film marks Gilroy’s debut as a director. His intelligently constructed screenplays for the Jason Bourne trilogy have all featured refreshingly adult dialog and subtle character nuance that has played no small part in setting those three films apart from the majority of mindless Hollywood action thrillers. That being said, Michael Clayton is not as fast-paced as the Bourne films, but it is no less gripping (and there’s only one explosion!).
In fact, Michael Clayton hearkens back to the kind of films that Sidney Lumet used to make, like the aforementioned Network, and more specifically, The Verdict. I see some parallels between Paul Newman’s brilliantly nuanced turn as the burned out ambulance chaser who gets a chance at redemption in the latter film and Clooney’s equally accomplished performance as the disillusioned Clayton. I also thought Wilkinson’s character would have felt right at home in the underrated 1979 satire And Justice For All which features Al Pacino’s classic courtroom meltdown (“YOU’RE out of order! HE’S out of order! “We’re ALL out of order…”)
Clooney and Wilkinson both deliver Oscar-caliber performances, and are well-supported by Swinton, who gives depth to a dragon-lady character who would likely have been more cartoonish and one-dimensional in the hands of a less-accomplished actress. I also got a kick out of Sydney Pollack, who gets some choice lines (Pollack co-produced, along with Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella and Clooney). Gilroy has made something you don’t see enough of at the multiplex these days-a film for grown ups.