Tilda Swinton and George Clooney in Michael Clayton (2007)
Michael Clayton is a janitor, but he’s not the kind who wears a green jumpsuit or mops floors or changes the toilet paper. He’s the go-to guy for Keener, Bach and Leeden, a high powered New York law firm. He cleans up messes for powerful people. He’s a fixer. He makes problems go away. When the key architect for Keener Bach’s defense of a $3 billion class-action lawsuit strips naked during a videotaped deposition threatening to bring the case crashing down, it’s left to Clayton to patch things up.
George Clooney plays Michael Clayton. When we meet him, his face is a pallid mask of self-loathing. Though he’s able to fix everyone else’s problems, his own life is a mess. He’s 45 years old, divorced, $75 thousand in debt, and he hates his job. He’s eager to shift gears, but he’s cursed with being great at what he does.
Tom Wilkinson is Arthur Edens, the brilliant attorney who is losing his mind. He’s got a history of psychological problems compounded by a lifetime spent defending the bad guys. He seems to want to redeem himself in one final action that will tear everything down around him. He’s Michael Clayton 10 or 15 years down the line.
Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, the newly installed chief in-house counsel of U/North, the chemical company whose toxic weed killer is the subject of the class action lawsuit at the center of the story. She’s eager to prove herself and will do anything she has to do to win the lawsuit. Her job may depend on it and this is a woman for whom the job is everything.
Each of these characters must consider what they’ve given up to get where they are, what they’ll have to give up to get what they want, and whether it’s worth it. Of course they all come up with different, conflicting answers.
For his part, Clayton would like to walk away from it all before he turns out like his friend Arthur, but the law firm can’t afford to lose this case. There is a pending merger and there are thousands of billable hours at stake. They need Clayton to do what he does and Clayton realizes the only way for him to get out is to get deeper in. Left on his own he could probably take care of everything, but Crowder doesn’t trust him. He’s a shadowy guy, not the guy with his name on the letterhead. In her world of corporate perks and corner offices and reserved parking spaces, a man like Clayton doesn’t compute. She’s got fixers of her own who don’t play by the same rules.
Tom Wilkinson has the juiciest part and he makes the most of it. There’s something about English actors, especially the ones who’ve been to the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts and who have belonged to the Royal Shakespeare Company. They know their way around a speech and Wilkinson is given several good ones here. He’s a lot of fun to watch and will probably get the most notice. Crazy wins Oscars.
Clooney’s part is more restrained, but he’s excellent. Dismissed as an empty pretty boy (like his pal Brad Pitt who is even better in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), I think he’s a little underrated as an actor. He might not have the widest range, but he knows his limitations and in the right things he excels. In Michael Clayton, he’s in his wheelhouse. Clayton is a man who isn’t sure he has all the answers anymore and he might not. There is a weariness and a vulnerability to Michael Clayton we’re not accustomed to seeing in Clooney on the big screen. The wounded, haunted character he played in the unfairly overlooked Solaris (2002) doesn’t count since so few actually saw it. This is miles away from Danny Ocean. There isn’t an ounce of smugness. Clooney doesn’t fall back on his usual mannerisms and the patented Clooney Head Tilt is nowhere to be found.
In a supporting role, Sydney Pollack does nice work as Marty Bach, the senior partner of Keener, Bach and Leeden. He’s the powerful guy who seems chummy when you’re on his side or if you’re useful to him, but he’s very dangerous if you’re not. There were echoes of his character in Eyes Wide Shut.
Surprisingly, the weak link for me was Tilda Swinton. I’ve liked her in everything I’ve seen her in including Stephanie Daley from earlier this year but it felt like she was trying too hard. In retrospect, it might’ve been her character that was so desperate and I’m confusing the role with the performance. On the other hand, her character also bordered uncomfortably on a tiresome stereotype: the power hungry career woman who will do anything to prove she’s one of the boys.
The screenplay is by Tony Gilroy who is also making his directing debut here. Gilroy is probably best known for his screenwriting work on the three Bourne films (and he also did a nice commentary track with Steven Soderbergh on the most recent The Third Man DVD). He’s crafted a sharp screenplay where all the pieces fit together and the dialogue has snap.
Though Michael Clayton is a thriller, there isn’t an overload of action. There are a few jolts, but most of the fireworks are verbal and it’s the dialogue that really sizzles. It’s a talky film and this will probably turn some viewers off. Some of the dialogue is also so slick, it becomes stylized. Like in an Aaron Sorkin script, people talk the way only people who have screenwriters talk. I happen to like this kind of stylization, but your results may vary.
Some thrillers with a political subtext get tripped up on their own message. Syriana I think falls into this trap and even the well regarded (but I think a little overrated) Traffic suffers at times from heavy-handedness. For the most part, the evil corporation responsible for the deadly weed killer in Michael Clayton is mainly a backdrop. Gilroy isn’t trying to lecture us on the evils of a soulless chemical company. This isn’t Silkwood or The China Syndrome or even Erin Brockovich. It’s a thriller, first and foremost.
As good as it is however, Michael Clayton falls a little short of being a truly great film. It’s crying out for a little something extra to go with the snappy writing and good acting. The story is a little pedestrian and it all seemed a little too slick and safe. The resolution seemed a little too tidy. I will say the unusual end credits were a nice touch, giving you a moment to absorb the full effects of Clooney’s final actions. Ultimately though, minor reservations aside, this is a terrific entertainment. It’s a John Grisham story with smarter writing and it’s well worth seeing.
Michael Clayton. USA 2007. Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy. Cinematography by Robert Elswit. Music score composed by James Newton Howard. Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack. 2 hours. Rated R for language including some sexual dialogue. 3.5 stars (out of 5)