Michael Clayton: Stuck Between Two Choices

THE TRUTH CAN BE ADJUSTED.

When Tony Gilroy was writing this script he heard about a law firm that had been working on a case for a decade. It was eventually settled in their favor to the tune of over a billion dollars. Two days before the settlement would take effect, one of the lawyers involved in the case found a document, buried in the piles of papers gathered over the decade, that would have changed the outcome of the case completely. The document quickly disappeared and the lawyer, who had only been at the firm for a few years, was offered partnership sooner than anyone else. So, how do people like that live with themselves? That’s the topic for Gilroy’s directing debut.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) makes sure secrets are buried and clients protected at all costs. A former district attorney, he now works for a big Manhattan law firm. He’s not a partner, even though he should be, but a “janitor” in his own words; he gets paid a lot of money to do the dirty work. Michael is not really a happy man; he’s divorced, has a gambling habit and his latest business venture went south. And that pesky conscience is starting to bug him. The firm is representing U/North, one of those big, faceless, evil corporations that usually show up in these movies, and Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), one of the leading attorneys, picks this moment to go bonkers. He has discovered a document proving U/North’s guilt and suffers a mental breakdown; Michael tries to control him, but Arthur decides to do the right thing for once.

However, U/North’s chief counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), knows what is about to happen and orders a pair of torpedoes to make the problem go away.

Superbly crafted thriller
Gilroy’s work is not unlike another film made by a writer who turned to directing, Steven Zaillian’s legal drama A Civil Action (1998), which also portrayed courageous individual decisions in the world of legalese. You won’t find many surprises in Michael Clayton, but it is such a treat for anyone who’s looking for an adult, intelligent and just superbly crafted Hollywood thriller that also has a big heart. Some would say it’s a liberal heart, and that may be true if standing up for what’s right is what’s liberal to you.

It’s interesting to follow Michael’s journey and Clooney plays him well (especially considering that he’s a more difficult, ambiguous character to portray than the others that are more straightforward), but Wilkinson and Swinton are even better as two opposites who are not all that different from each other. Karen does bad things to save herself and the company, but suffers from anxiety attacks. Arthur used to be that person, but he’s had his breakdown and it made him realize that he doesn’t want to play anymore, something that seals his fate.

Gilroy looks like he’s very much at ease in the director’s chair; his film is perfectly structured both visually and narratively, employing an effective flashback device that triggers our interest.

Perhaps it would have been better if Michael was more successful, making his decision to do the right thing a bolder one, but this is on the other hand more believable, and it’s interesting to see him stuck in the middle between two clear choices (the symbolism of Arthur and Karen). In that sequence where Michael gets out of his car one early morning and walks up to three horses and just stands there watching them, we truly get a sense of how tempted he is to just bail and find freedom. It is indeed a relief to see a faint smile on his lips in the film’s final frame.

Michael Clayton 2007-U.S. 120 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent, Steve Samuels. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Music: James Newton Howard. Cast: George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Tom Wilkinson (Arthur Edens), Tilda Swinton (Karen Crowder), Sydney Pollack, Michael O’Keefe, Ken Howard.

Trivia: Co-executive-produced by Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (Swinton). BAFTA: Best Supporting Actress (Swinton).

Last word: “By and large, most directors are really mystified by what actors do. You can have completely different styles in the same film. Tom Wilkinson does not like to spend a lot of time talking. He wants to know what the script is, he wants his questions answered, and then you stand back and turn the camera on. Tilda, by contrast, is like a Halloween actor. She needed her pearls, she needed her outfits. I introduced her to some women who were general counsels for big firms. They took her shopping. She assembles characters from the outside in.” (Gilroy, The Seattle Times)

 

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