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Polished Michael Clayton Tells Its Story with Panache

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Feb 14, 2008
Polished <i>Michael Clayton</i> Tells Its Story with Panache

DVD Release Date:  February 19, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  October 5, 2007
Rating:  R (for language including some sexual dialogue)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  119 min.
Director:  Tony Gilroy
Actors:  George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack

The last time we saw Tony Gilroy’s name, it was as screenwriter of The Bourne Ultimatum, a fast-moving conclusion to the Bourne trilogy that suggested the U.S. government exploits the best intentions of younger men and women who desire to serve their country. Effective as an action vehicle (helmed by director Paul Greengrass), the message at the heart of Ultimatum played to the worst suspicions of those opposed to intelligence-gathering agencies and the case for war.

So, Gilroy’s credits as writer and director of Michael Clayton, a film that depicts corporate malfeasance, might give viewers pause, fearing that the film is a one-sided, anti-Big-Business screed. The presence in the title role of George Clooney, a fine actor but also a noted Hollywood liberal, might add to any such suspicion. It’s gratifying, therefore, to discover that those fears are misplaced. Michael Clayton is crisp and propulsive, without being at all alienating.

The story tackles clear, documented corporate criminality that will have even the most hardened supporters of Big Business wanting to see justice done. It also excels as a profile of two lawyers wrestling with their consciences who make dramatic changes in light of incriminating information.

A former litigator for law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, Clayton (Clooney) has long since moved out of the courtroom and into the role of “special counsel,” tasked with containing potential corporate problems. “I’m a janitor,” Clayton explains to one incredulous client, early in the film. “The smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean up.”

Clayton soon finds himself at the center of a major mess after an attempt on his life, but instead of immediately thrusting us into the whodunit aspect of the story, Gilroy’s story reverts to four days earlier, recounting the events that led to Clayton’s close call.

Between attempts to find thousands of dollars to cover expenses associated with a restaurant he co-owns with his troubled brother, Clayton is assigned to minimize the damage from the meltdown of fellow lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). Off his meds, the troubled Edens expresses sympathy for a witness testifying against agrochemical company U/North—one of the law firm’s major clients—which stands accused in a class-action suit of poisoning the ground of farms that use its product. “I’ve spent 12 percent of my life defending the reputation of a weed-killer,” says the despondent Edens, after he unearths documents incriminating U/North.

The law firm can’t afford any negative publicity—a corporate merger is in the works—so Clayton is tasked with reclaiming Edens’ notes and minimizing the fallout from Edens’ breakdown. Clayton’s slow awakening to the reality of U/North’s criminality challenges him to rethink his career trajectory. Will he risk standing alongside Edens, whom the company dismisses as worthy of being committed, even if that means squandering an impeccable reputation? What if that reputation has been earned at the expense of people’s lives and health?

Although law-firm partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) tries to assuage Clayton’s growing misgivings about his role at the firm, the smooth-talking Clayton is shaken by Edens’ claims and the documentation supporting the plaintiffs’ allegations against U/North. Clayton’s shifting motivations stand in contrast to those of U/North’s in-house Chief Counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who, to protect her own professional advancement, ignores the clear evidence against her firm. She sends goons to take care of Edens before a potential settlement in the case unravels and her career ambitions take a hit.

Michael Clayton is a film with many strengths. Clooney inhabits the title role with a fitting weariness; his smirking, sex-symbol image is subdued, allowing Clooney’s acting chops to dominate. Swinton, the most memorable performer in Walden Media’s blockbuster adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (she played the White Witch), puts on a stoic face for the firm while suppressing the increasingly desperate, illegal actions she oversees. The superb cinematography by Robert Elswit (Good Night and Good Luck, Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia) complements Gilroy’s solid direction and writing, making for a strong awards contender, and, more importantly, a thoughtful, entertaining night at the movies.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple profanities; crude reference to body parts.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A lawyer strips to his underwear; verbal description of a sex act.
  • Gambling:  Clayton has a past problem with gambling that threatens to engulf him again.
  • Violence:  A man is injected in the neck; a car bomb detonates.