Director: Tony Gilroy
By Roderick Heath
Michael Clayton is a lawyer who doesn’t practise law anymore – instead, he’s more of a “janitor” for the powerful New York law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, as his friend and coworker Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) describes him. His niche position has become one of tending to the messy situations of clients and colleagues. Without using bribery, standover tactics, or nefarious means, Michael simply has the ability to read a situation and construct the best strategy for easing the pain. Early in the film we see Michael called to counsel Greer (Denis O’Hare), a creep of a client who’s just knocked a man down in a hit-and-run accident. Michael is dispassionate about reciting the man’s options, and afterwards, takes off in a panic into the countryside, pausing his journey to get out and approach a trio of horses on a hillside. As he reaches to pat one of the horses, his car explodes.
Who put a bomb in Michael’s car, and why? The film travels back a few days to explain. He was called to bail out Arthur who had been working on a six-year-old class action lawsuit brought by hundreds of rural families who had been falling ill, so they say, because of a pesticide produced by the massive U/North Corporation. Wilkinson, a manic-depressive who is also an exceptional lawyer, seems to have gone into another unstable episode; during a deposition by Anna (Merritt Weve), a pretty teenage plaintiff, he stripped naked and got himself arrested after chasing the girl and her lawyers off through the snow. Michael believes Arthur has gone off his meds, and so ignores Arthur’s pleas that he is responding to a real and urgent crisis in what he is doing. Arthur soon takes a runner from Michael’s care.
Meanwhile, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) has been promoted to the job of her boss, Don Jeffries (Ken Howard), as head of U/North’s legal department, taking over responsibility for the case. The film cuts between her fastidious, fluent appearance when giving interviews with her arduous, obsessive rehearsals. With her pale flesh, her secret sweating, and her bloodless face, she suggests something octopoidal, as though having conquered most of her humanity in the process of rising to the top, but still fighting a guerrilla war with her own rebellious cells. Realising what it might mean if Arthur is truly a threat to the security of their case, she soon assigns two goons to finding and keeping an eye on him. She’s the kind of woman who orders someone assassinated and then goes to have a panic attack in the bathroom—not that it makes her think twice. She’s got reason to worry—Arthur has found a document proving that the heads of the company knew of and buried scientific data that proved the pesticide caused cancer, and that it seeped into the water table used by residents as drinking water. He’s also in contact with Anna, promising to help her in the case.
Michael Clayton is a welcome update of the guy-with-a-conscience movies of the 1970s and ’80s, except with a more middle-aged, world-weary air than, say, …And Justice For All (1979) or Brubaker (1980). Where these earlier films and their like usually dealt with young men trying to grapple with corrupt institutions, Michael Clayton is about a man who long ago happily sold out, but is forced to fully confront his own corruption and that of the people around him. The film centers on a detailed, devoted, achingly assured performance by Clooney. Michael, an aging, disillusioned golden boy, has an ex-wife, a son Henry (Austin Williams) of whom he has partial custody, a partly conquered gambling problem, and a serious, sudden debt when the bar he set up to be managed by his feckless brother Tommy (David Lansbury) goes under.
Angry at his brother for his weakness, Michael considers him a dead weight on his own worldly success. But his success doesn’t seem to make him very happy. Michael wants his son to grow up strong and independent, but is what he does what he hopes his son will do? Amorality isn’t just a job requirement in his sphere, it’s a virtual philosophy. When he approaches Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), who is one of the senior partners and his boss, and simultaneously tries to borrow money and work out how to deal with Arthur’s mouthing off, Marty prods him until Michael asks, “What do you want me to say? Give me 80 grand and I’ll forget Arthur?” Marty ripostes, “Maybe you should have!” Fiscal motivations are clear signals of intent; everything else is untrustworthy and self-indulgent. Marty is also entirely fine with defending a case he knew “reeked from day one;” it’s their job.
Debuting director Tony Gilroy brings his own screenplay to life with an intense, icy airbrush of artistry that helps, not hinders, the machinery of his story arc. The photography by Robert Elswit conjures a world of steely beauty and hazy grace, as if all seen through eye still bloodshot from last night’s drinking. Gilroy’s tight control on his style and his story take the film a long way, but not quite far enough to avoid revealing that his film is essentially a sexed-up version of A Civil Action (1999) with some Alan Pakula paranoia. Gilroy, an experienced Hollywood wordsmith, writes the Bourne movies, and like those films, he gives his genre offering solidity and momentum by grounding it in a tough, unsentimental take on institutions. Be it the CIA or the corporate world, Gilroy knows how to zero in on what is obnoxious about their behavior and phony about their poses.
But whilst deftly characterising the self-delusions and contradictions of Karen and Marty as characters, the film’s take on corporate malfeasance and cover-ups is shallow, despite Clooney and Gilroy’s solid liberal perspectives; we’ve seen this story already with The Constant Gardener (2005) and a half-dozen other films. The company and its monstrous acts remain bogeymen. Their two hired goons are amusingly introduced as bland, grinning golfers forced to abandon their day’s game to go do evil henchmen stuff. Whilst I, for one, don’t doubt that Big Business can pull off these sorts of shenanigans, I do doubt it all comes off with the kind of Machiavelli-via-Rolex-ad slickness it does here.
So Michael Clayton certainly never becomes a message picture as well as a thriller. Instead, it follows a pretty worn arc, as Michael picks up the threads of Arthur’s investigation and soon puts himself in danger, through to the finale and his method of driving Karen to the wall—all very familiar scenes redeemed by sharp style and impeccable acting. Clayton’s family background and midlife quagmire are well detailed but actually add up to little. The film isn’t interested, for instance, in describing why Michael and Timmy have ended up so different. It’s not really a character study, despite the title. Moreover, some of Gilroy’s flourishes are riddled with a metaphysical element that never escapes the yoga class, like the opening monologue by Arthur that tries to channel the kind of crazy-genius babble of Peter Finch in Network (1976), or a Shakespearean Fool. Arthur, and later Michael, invoke “Shiva the God of Death” as a joke about delusions of grandeur, but also to signify an earnest, righteous intention to tear down the Towers of Babel around them in seeking karmic rebirth.
Then there’s the irritating motif where Michael’s son turns Arthur on to a series of fantasy books (made up for the film) that reflects Arthur’s paranoia but also provides a prescient warning through those horses on the hill—symbols of freedom, they recreate an illustration from the book—the sort of tinny, significant pseudo-metaphysical touch that is the definition of sophistry. Wilkinson handles his role, laced with screenwriter’s indulgences that might have been excruciating in the wrong hands, with a skill that is truly blinding. Gilroy’s enough of a professional to know how to put his story across, but this also presents Michael Clayton from reaching the grounded, procedural brilliance of All The President’s Men (1976), a definite influence, nor quite the lean, electric intensity of a no-frills noir film. Nor, really, does the film challenge anyone’s moral precepts.
Though their motivations may be distinct (what we’re willing to do to get ahead), Marty and Karen never do anything that is definitely right, and Michael never does anything that is definitely wrong. He brushes his brother off a bit brusquely, and we presume he’s done unpretty things in protecting assholes in the past, but we don’t see that. Everything we see him do is essentially decent until he’s stuck holding both his alternatives literally in his hand—Arthur’s report that will blow the case up, or the $80,000 from Marty. It’s a bit too obvious a conundrum. Michael fails the test, but only briefly. The audience is never really forced to question its loyalty or identifications, and so the map of characters is definitely in the realm of melodrama. We know who the baddies are and that our hero will do the right thing eventually or go down trying.
So the film’s politico-social edge is blunted, and as a narrative it can’t break the mould. It’s a pity Gilroy plays safe, because his handling of the film and the elements within promise mastery, and with a fewer clichés, he might have produced an affecting, terrifying parable. Yet where the film is strongest, it is very strong. Michael is a believable character, and the reflections his situation offers on what success in life means are valid. When, in the end, we grin with pleasure when he gets the baddies, the film and he have earned our cheers. It’s a natural part for Clooney who, with his increasingly steel-shaded hair and perpetual five o’clock shadow, effortlessly embodies class gone a little to seed, lending charm to his sombre expression and dour estimation of mankind’s state, rich with underlying anxieties and unhealed psychic sores. It’s essentially a personal story as Michael tries to avoid having his brain broken like Arthur’s or his identity sucked away like Karen’s. I most admired Swinton’s turn. Armed only with a variation on the Cold Corporate Bitch part, she conjures a blackly comic creature, a startling spectacle of contradictory impulses that it proves impossible for a human body to contain.