Tony Gilroy’s feature debut offers many things—including an inadvertent demonstration of just how much a film really is the product of its director. Gilroy, it should be noted, penned the screenplays for all three of The Bourne Identity films—something you might notice if you concentrated on the basic intelligence of those three movies and this one. It’s also something you’d never even suspect from the look or feel of the films themselves. The Bourne pictures are the last word in the realm of handheld, deliberately jittery camerawork. Michael Clayton, on the other hand, is a very traditional—even classic—looking movie with as much gloss and professionalism as you could hope for.
Other characteristics of the film include a literate—if occasionally unbelievable—screenplay, four great performances, and further proof that George Clooney is quite simply the movie star of our age, and in some ways, this role offers the best example of that yet.
Clooney plays the title character, a “fixer” at a high-powered law firm. He’s a practicing attorney, but he doesn’t practice law. He specializes instead in cleaning up messes made by others, and in fact, calls himself a janitor. The latest mess he’s handed is a huge one: The firm’s top lawyer, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has flipped out in the middle of a deposition concerning a huge case against an agricultural chemical company. Edens—who is bipolar and has stopped taking his medication—poses a threat to the case, because he knows the company is incredibly guilty, and his conscience has taken over in his unmedicated state. However, this is one mess that Clayton is finding harder to clean up than he might have thought. To make matters worse, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who works for the chemical company at risk is becoming increasingly desperate about silencing Eden. And then there’s the $75,000 Clayton owes on a bad restaurant deal to some folks who tend to do extreme things to people who don’t pay up—it’s money he doesn’t have because of his weakness for gambling. There’s more to it in terms of twists and turns, but that outlines the basics.
However, what’s best about Michael Clayton lies in the characters, the sharp dialogue and the performances. There are moments in the film that are almost breathtaking in the precision of the writing and dialogue delivery. A good case in point is the scene where the otherwise completely delusional Edens suddenly provides a remarkably lucid litany of reasons why, under New York law, Clayton and the firm are going to find it virtually impossible to have him put away. (The scene plays very much like—and even recalls—the one in Citizen Kane where Orson Welles suddenly rattles off a list of his assets to someone pointing out his irresponsible attitude toward his own interests.)
The film etches three fine portraits—Clayton, Edens, Crowder—of people who have either sold their souls and are trying to reclaim them, or are in the process of finishing the sales. In that regard, Michael Clayton somewhat resembles Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), with its bleak portrait of an utterly hopeless situation, but this film never quite reaches that level. A large part of the reason is that Michael Clayton is ultimately less socio-political critique than a 1970s-style thriller rethought for the 21st century. That might be smart from a box-office standpoint, but it’s also ultimately the reason that I think the film just isn’t quite the great work it’s being seen as in some quarters.
As I say, its intelligence lies in the dialogue and the acting—not in a plot that is a little too often hard to swallow once you get past the cleverness of the characterizations. Most of the objections I could raise or have heard raised, I can counter by saying that the characters spend most of the film unable to comprehend anything that they would not do themselves. Without spoiling the intricacies of the plot, I can at least say a trick played on Tilda Swinton’s character at the end works because she innately believes that everyone is fully as corrupt as she is.
However, there are other parts of the film I’m less able to accept: the idea that the delusional Tom Wilkinson character wouldn’t realize (or even imagine) that he would be spied on when he’s about to blow the lid off a multi-billion dollar lawsuit. These don’t scuttle the film, but they do move it from the great column into the very good one. Still, that’s more than enough to recommend Michael Clayton very highly—that and the opportunity to see a great star in one of his best portrayals. Rated R for language, including some sexual dialogue.