Michael Clayton is a clinical criminal lawyer, but he doesn’t try cases in court. Instead he is charged with handling emergency, on the spot problems for important clients of a major US law firm – a firm whose existence hinges on the long-term, high-stakes defense of uNorth, a pharmaceuticals giant accused of causing over four hundred deaths with a highly toxic pesticide.
Michael’s future is looking bleak; a distant relationship with his young son is growing ever more so, while an unsound personal investment has left him staring bankruptcy in the face. The firm’s future on the other hand is almost assured, a lucrative merger with some British partners is just awaiting the signatures. Unless something unpredictable, something cataclysmic happens.
Michael finds himself called in by the firm to help the firm – and the problem lies within. A friend, overwhelmed by the cynicism of their business, has done a very bad thing and the uNorth case hangs in the balance. There is no question that Michael is the man for the task, he’s the fixer, it’s what he does. Michael has another, less glamorous name for what he does and can only hope that what he is is more than just the job; but he isn’t the only resource being employed to ensure that everything is settled properly.
I think George Clooney is pretty good. As a denier of ER and Pop music I went reluctantly to see Out Of Sight and came out convinced that both he and Jennifer Lopez were serious talents; so I was half right. In my hatred of Joel Schumacher I flat out refused to watch Batman And Neon , which may have proved me All Wrong for all I know because I still haven’t; and I didn’t bother with Ocean’s Extra or Baker’s Dozen either. I’ve never seen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. But I think George Clooney is pretty good. Oh yeah, and I thought Good Night, and Good Luck was the film of its year, far superior to Not David Cronenberg’s Crash.
In Michael Clayton, George Clooney is playing the kind of role he’s designed for and the two fit together very well. His realistic good looks make him a more convincing highbrow protagonist than a prettier star would be, and he juggles Clayton’s assured career competence and nose-diving personal life very effectively. Key support is provided by Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. As the fracturing legal mastermind Wilkinson has the best deal, playing right out on the surface all the passion that Clayton presumably once felt but has subsequently repressed. Swinton has a much tougher time in what is, from her very first scene, a seriously unglamorous role, but as a humanly flawed character under ever increasing pressure she rings very true and it is fair to say of the entire cast that the air of realism is never dispelled. Hmm. Did I say never? “Rarely”.
Michael Clayton is written and directed by Tony Gilroy. First-time directing with confidence, his back catalogue of screenplays demonstrate that, for better or worse, he really knows how to write for film. Being involved with all three Bourne films (as well as prime turkeys Armehgeddon, The Devil’s Advocate and Proof Of Life amongst others) he is very comfortable working with the structured storytelling which Hollywood clings to and it serves him well, possibly making the step “up” to directing that much easier. It is produced by, amongst others, supporting star Sydney Pollack, and exec-prodded by Anthony Minghella (best known of course for his five year stint script editing Grange Hill), Clooney hisself and his long term hip-joint Steven Soderbergh.
There are a handful of comparisons to be made between this and Soderbergh’s audience, critic and Oscar-friendly Erin Brockovich: a titular protagonist who is torn between career and self; a social/legal issue focused very specifically on industrial misconduct; and the generally high standard of writing, production and performances. There is however a complete inversion of the warm, bright, feel-good atmosphere of EB, replaced by a down-beat mood, chill colours and in Clayton himself a sense of weariness that builds convincingly into tension and paranoia. Some may find parts of the dialogue rather bogged down in the technicalities of the legal industry; I found it more immersive than off-putting, but I’ve heard the other side. For these reasons it is a harder film to empathise with, but – one minor* quibble aside – the journey is sound and satisfying through to the end. As an unmatched pair EB and MC are nicely complimentary, but then I like failures of symmetry. And George Clooney. And Michael Clayton.
* Well, sort of. It hardly ruins the film, but the otherwise frighteningly professional killers make a right hammed-fist of the subtleties of car bombing, and given the overall professionalism of the production it seems a shame that the story should hinge on something a little, well, half-arsed.