This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.
There comes a point in everyone’s life — though for most of us, it is hardly a singular event — when we reach a crossroad and must make a decision as to which direction to proceed. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is at such a place. What he decides will determine the course, both physically and morally, of the rest of his life.
Clayton is an in-house fixer at Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, one of the most powerful law firms in New York City. A former prosecutor from a family of blue-collar cops, Clayton now makes his living managing the firm’s dirty laundry at the behest of co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). If a client is involved in a hit-and-run accident, they call Clayton. If the wife of a high-profile politician is caught shoplifting, they call Clayton.
But cleaning up others’ messes has started to wear thin, and Clayton finds that after 15 years on the job, he is world-weary and burned out. “I’m not a miracle worker,” he tells one of the scumbags he’s sent to help, “I’m a janitor.”
Clayton’s frustration couldn’t come at a worse time. On the eve of massive settlement for one of their largest clients, the agrochemical company U/North, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the firm’s brilliant top litigator, suffers a shockingly embarrassing mental breakdown which threatens to sabotage the entire case. Clayton is called in to look after his friend and see to it that any damage he might have caused is contained, diffused, and quietly swept under the rug.
Arthur reveals the discovery of a “smoking gun” memo implicating U/North in the death of dozens of innocent people. In a Damascus moment reminiscent of Howard Beale’s Network rant, Arthur exposes a tenuous sanity all but crushed by the weight of a lifetime of moral indiscretions.
Despite everything Clayton does to assure Arthur that he has his best interests at heart, his friend knows that he is more interested in the suppression of truth than its liberation. "I'm not the enemy," Clayton tells him at one point. "Then who are you?" comes the malignant response.
There is nothing pompous or self-righteous about Arthur. His tolerance level for practicing evil is his undoing. It is as if he is discovering right from wrong for the first time in his life and is lit from within by a berserker fire to right the world’s wrongs.
Arthur’s crisis of conscience invariably brings Clayton face to face with his own ethical demons. Arthur is Michael Clayton in another 20 years and it is an image Clayton finds dreadfully unsettling. Oddly enough, it is not a moment of rash indiscretion but of moral clarity that reveals how far he has fallen.
As Clayton tries to pick up the pieces, juggling his duties to the firm with his obligations to a sick father, and alcoholic younger brother, and a son he rarely has time to see, U/North’s chief in-house council, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), swamped with panic and the frenzied impulse for self-preservation, decides to take matters into her own hands, setting events in motion that stain her hands with the blood of even more innocents. It isn’t long before Clayton finds himself squarely in the crosshairs.
A marriage of A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich with The Pelican Brief, Michael Clayton represents the directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter best known for penning the Bourne trilogy. You would never know it is his first time behind the camera, such is his confidence and assuredness. It cannot have been an easy task given the fact that two of his leads (Clooney and Pollack) are accomplished directors themselves. Gilroy takes his time getting to the plot, secure in the knowledge that character development is not only imperative, but done right, can also be compelling. His gut-punching script moves with its own sense of primal poetry.
George Clooney (in the sort of role Richard Gere used to tackle) is terrific as a man who is a shadow of his former self, an individual so skewed by compromise and the defense of the indefensible, that he is sullied almost beyond recognition. While the story of U/North’s corporate turpitude is engaging, it is when our shady hero comes face to face with the hollowing reality of what he has become that the film really takes off.
Swinton is pitch perfect, immaculately creating a character who allows circumstances to drive her ethics, instead of the other way around, to disastrous results. When it is over, even she cannot conceive of how she crossed such a yawning gap. But it is Wilkinson who deserves the most praise. He shines as the Shakespearean fool, a flesh and blood morality tale whose impassioned speeches and turbulent emotional state constitute the film’s moral center. It is a role that may be enough for another Oscar nomination.
Michael Clayton is not a film of pizzazz, pulse-pounding action, or fireworks. It is a deliberate and measured look at what happens when you wake up one day and realize you can no longer recognize the man staring back at you from the bathroom mirror. While the film’s title is certainly lackluster, in a way it is the ideal designation. For in the end, what’s important is not the case or the conspiracy. It is a man. And the choices the man makes.