Yes, there really was a time when American cinema contained complex story-lines, social commentary and characters that were allowed to be flawed and ambiguous instead of being purely good or purely evil. During this period, referred to as “the Seventies”–not only did these films, including such titles as “The Parallax View,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “All the President’s Men,” to name a few, they were also designed as mainstream entertainments to be enjoyed not only by the critics but also for the general public.
One movie star who chose to use his considerable box-office clout to keep this cinematic tradition alive against the odds over the years is George Clooney. There are essentially two kinds of thrillers: visceral thrillers, which rely on action to generate tension and excitement, and intellectual thrillers, which burn more slowly but are often more satisfying in the end. Michael Clayton, the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy, belongs in the latter category. This is a movie one can enjoy as much or more for its acting as for its plot.
PlotMichael Clayton (George Clooney) is a 45-year-old "fixer" for one of New York City's largest and most powerful law firms. His boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), sees him as an invaluable asset to the company who can always be relied upon to take care of the loose ends that are part and parcel of running such a large and successful firm. He also has a debt of $75,000 to some unsavory characters.
Clayton is handed one of his biggest challenges when one of the law firm's top litigators, Arthur Evans(Tom Wilkinson) becomes convinced that U/North, the multinational conglomerate he represents in a multimillion dollar class-action lawsuit, is guilty of ethical malfeasance on a grand scale. It is Clayton's job to clean up the mess--get Arthur, who is manic-depressive, back on his medication and assure Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the lead counsel for U/North, that everything is just fine.
However, the deeper he stumbles into this, the more he begins to question Arthur's motives. Michael becomes trapped in the middle - caught between his own underdeveloped sense of right and wrong and his need for financial stability.
AnalysisYou've might have heard it before, but it bears repeating: With his chiseled good looks, dashing charm, and proven acting chops, George Clooney is the Hollywood's old-fashioned glamorous movie star. But he doesn't stop himself by doing some light-weight romantic movies. Clooney demonstrates his talents in comedy and drama with equal skill. In Michael Clayton, Clooney plays the character with the lived-in weariness of a man who knows he has gone as far as he's going to. It's a subtle, watchful performance, but you have to pay attention to it.
Tony Gilroy, who had a hand in writing all three of the Bourne films, has structures of power on the mind, and he builds Michael Clayton into a harsh indictment of global corporate misconduct. Gilroy has also, assembled a top-notch cast who take to the material with the kind of relish that is rarely seen on the screen these days. His approach may appear to be simple and unfussy but he is also capable of a beautifully lyrical visual when such a moment arises, as well as pulls up some dramatic confrontations–the climactic scene between Clooney and Swinton is easily one of the most electrifying scenes to appear on a movie.
As Clooney's corporate rival, Tilda Swinton offers up a mesmerizing portrayal of corporate loathsomeness at its most blandly evil while Tom Wilkinson is haunting as the kind of man with manic-depression. Plus, it's good to see actor/director Sydney Pollack, here playing the exasperated boss of Michael's law firm.
"Michael Clayton" doesn't have the easiest plot line to follow, as it tends to skip around in time and place among characters and events, but it's worth being drawn into the story, thinking about it, and figuring it out. And it does all come together beautifully at the finish. It builds to a fitting conclusion and doesn't need surprise twists or cheap theatrics to get to that point.
The movie reminds us that, ambition is a terrible force when enslaved to money and power. "Michael Clayton" is about the gap between predatory professionalism and the sins of real life. The movie makes a damning statement about the profit-above-all business practices of major corporations, but there's nothing new in that. What's worthwhile here is the way in which the story provides us with unique characters in interesting situations.
For intelligent moviegoers who have despaired of seeing any adult-oriented dramas that don’t hit you over the head with their obvious story points, it is a welcome reminder of a film-making style that used to be the norm instead of the exception. Michael Clayton is a thriller, that hits your emotions like a hurricane.