When critics complain about the dumbing down of movies into franchise popcorn, what we’re really doing is yearning for a terrifically engrossing, tethered-to-the-real-world drama like Michael Clayton. It’s better than good; it’s such a crackling and mature and accomplished movie that it just about restores your faith. This is a tale of greed, lies, and under-the-table violence — an exposé of what corporations do, and the way corporate law firms help them get away with it — yet if that all sounds familiar from a hundred other muckraking dramas, Michael Clayton makes you feel as if you’ve never seen any of it before.
This is the first movie directed, as well as written, by Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter of the Bourne films, and he works in a quiet, nervy observational style, immersing us in what really goes on within the corridors of high commerce. He also fragments time into a gripping mosaic. The movie kicks off with a botched car bombing, and there’s a murder in the middle of it that is one of the most plausibly terrifying things I’ve ever seen in a film, yet Gilroy’s touch is so subtle and glancing you might not even guess you’re watching a thriller — which is why, when the story begins to thrill, it earns every pulse pound. It never leaves human experience behind.
The title character is played by George Clooney, with his snappy bravado and self-aware charmer’s glint intact, but creased by a weariness we’ve barely seen before. For the first time, fear darts out of his eyes. Clooney’s Michael Clayton is a veteran ”fixer” for the prestigious New York law firm of Kenner, Bach & Leeden. Once a DA, he went for the big money in the early ’90s and now operates in an ethical twilight zone, greasing palms and smoothing out whatever needs smoothing. He’s the classic American cynical-sharpie hero, like Bogart in Casablanca, who has only just begun to notice that he’s sinking into the muck around him.
Slithering out of a Chinatown poker game (he’s a card addict who’s tumbling off the wagon), Clayton drives to Westchester to lend assistance to one of the firm’s clients, who’s been involved in a hit-and-run accident. The driver’s blend of entitlement and flop sweat is mesmerizing — there but for the grace of God go us — and Clayton, laying down his options, communicates a sizzling grasp of police ritual and the law. The scene sets a tone of ordinary people parsing what their money can and cannot buy. Michael Clayton is about the ordinary people who happen to be sitting atop the pyramid of power.
The story pivots around a $3 billion class-action suit — or, rather, the unraveling of the case after Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the law firm’s star litigator, loses his marbles. Edens has spent six years defending the ” progressive” agrochemical company U/North, which manufactured a weed killer that resulted in several hundred deaths on family farms. The firm doesn’t even want to win; it wants the case to hang in limbo so it can feed like a parasite off the billable hours. At a deposition, Edens takes his clothes off and starts speaking gibberish, the apparent result of his having gone off his manic-depressive medication. The movie’s sly joke is that he has really come to his senses. Wilkinson plays him as a dead soul reborn as a crazy-eloquent blabbermouth — a man, his innards eaten by guilt, ready to make amends. What this means is he plans to deliver a key piece of evidence to the plaintiffs.
It’s Clayton’s job to knock Arthur back into line. But there are other forces at work, like U/North’s in-house counsel (Tilda Swinton), a neurotic shark in pearls who hires a pair of troubleshooters to keep tabs on Arthur. These techno-drones (Robert Prescott and Terry Serpico) are quite the duo: They’re like aging members of the Princeton swim team, and they speak in the most sinister of corporate euphemisms. (You never knew how creepy the words ” We’re good” could sound.)
Gilroy doesn’t just dramatize; he gives every character the equivalent of a deep background check. The scenes with Michael and his brothers, a workaday cop (Sean Cullen) and a druggie black sheep (David Lansbury), carve deeply into the conflict between class striving and family loyalty. And Michael’s failed attempt to open a restaurant, which has landed him $75,000 in debt, makes a mockery of his expense-account ease. He’s forced to get the money from the head of the law firm, and this squinty executive king is played, by Sydney Pollack, with such an exquisitely dry acceptance of corruption that, for a moment, he makes avarice look like the only emotion that’s real. Clayton knows that he’s being bought. Yet redemption awaits, in a galvanizing final encounter that gives Clooney the chance to remind you of what it looks like when a great movie star lays his heart and soul on the table. A