Michael Clayton stars George Clooney as a self-described “fixer,” a
troubleshooter, even a “miracle worker” for a large New York
law firm. When no one else can get a job done, they send for Michael
Clayton who will do whatever he can to win a case for his firm. Michael
seldom thinks about the consequences of what he does. He just
does his job and moves on to the next.
Michael has been working with his friend Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), a brilliant
lawyer who is defending U-North, a global bio-ecological firm, against
a class action law suit. Arthur learns the truth, that U-North
knew years ago the potentially harmful effects of their chemicals, yet
did nothing to warn anyone. Arthur flips out during a deposition,
and begins to take all his clothes off. Of course, Michael is called
in to “fix” the situation. The more he delves into
the case, the more he finds that Arthur’s response may not have
been so crazy after all.
At its best, Michael Clayton is a smart, well acted, great
looking movie about a matter of conscience. What is Michael to
do when he learns the truth? What happens when so much money, and
the reputation of the firm, is at stake? The stakes are very high
here. It’s also a thriller, as Karen (Tilda Swinton,) U-Tube’s
chief legal consultant, hires thugs to follow both Arthur and Michael.
The best scenes are two character scenes between Michael and Arthur,
and Michael and Karen. Michael tries desperately to reach out to
Arthur, then begins to learn that Arthur was on to something. And
the final scene when Michael confronts Karen is great stuff. Clooney
shines in these scenes, and I would not be at all surprised to see him
and co-stars Wilkinson and Swinton, both of whom are outstanding, receive
Oscar nominations for their work.
For all these reasons, I recommend Michael Clayton, even though
it is flawed. When the film is focused on Michael, Bill, and Sally,
it’s absorbing and intense. However, writer-director Tony
Gilroy (known for adapting the three Bourne films for the screen)
loses the dramatic intensity when he shifts the focus to Michael’s
relationship with his family. Scenes with divorced father Michael
and his son are nice, but don’t add anything to the picture. Furthermore,
scenes with Michael interacting with his father and brothers (one a cop,
the other a recovering addict), needlessly confound the plot. I
assume the scenes are intended to show Michael as a decent man, from
humble beginnings, trying to deal with his family. Instead, they
detract from the film’s major focus.
In addition, the structure of the film, moving backward and forward
in time, does not help. I think a more straightforward telling
of the story, focusing on lead actors Clooney, Wilkinson, and Swinton,
would have tightened the focus and made for a better film.
In conclusion, I recommend Michael Clayton. Despite my
reservations, it’s a thought-provoking tale of a contemporary crisis
of conscience in which truth and justice become entangled with company
loyalty and enormous amounts of money. It’s as relevant as
the morning newspaper.
Tom Condon, OP