As we exited the theater, my friend said, “George was good, but I don’t think he will win an Academy Award for that role”. When I asked why she stated, “Because the role is very similar to the character he played in “Syriana”. She has a point, but my argument is that in “Syriana”, his character was one of many. In “Michael Clayton”, he is the center of the film and it is very much the leading performance. The role and the film have Oscar stamped all over them.
Michael Clayton (Clooney) is THE troubleshooter at a large law firm in New York. He facilitates everything the firm’s clients need, to make sure they remain happy customers, willing to pay huge retainers. But he doesn’t practice law anymore and this is beginning to wear him down. When the bar he has invested his life savings in closes and he still owes the backers $75,000, he realizes he shouldn’t have placed so much confidence in his younger brother, the manager of the establishment. As he deals with his financial problems, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), the lead attorney on the firm’s biggest case, representing a chemical company called U-North, goes a little crazy. Michael is called in to bail Arthur out and to placate the clients. But Arthur insists the case is faulty and U-North is really guilty. And he won’t shut up about it. When the lead counsel for the large company, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) gets wind of this, she realizes her position and the company’s impending settlement may be in jeopardy, so she decides to take action. As Michael gets more involved with Arthur’s problems and the U-North case, his boss (Sydney Pollack) has to deal with a merger to a British law firm. Everything each of these people is doing or working on is part of an elaborate dominoes puzzle; if one piece falls, every other piece will follow. And everyone will do everything in their power to make sure a single piece doesn’t cause a chain reaction.
Tony Gilroy, the writer of the “Bourne” films, makes his directorial debut with “Michael Clayton”. The film has a lot of story threads enmeshed throughout the film; it takes a while to get these going, but once Gilroy does, we realize the wait has been worth it. Because he takes such great pains to set-up each of these story threads, making each believable and interesting, when we realize they are all part of the larger story, it makes the final film very engrossing and even a little thrilling.
“Clayton” is the type of film that shows extraneous bits of each character’s lives. Initially, as we watch these moments play out, they help to provide interesting details about the character’s lives, but they don’t really seem to have a lot of connection to the story. Then, as the story progresses, these moments become related, in a superfluous way, helping to make us more interested in the characters. For instance, we first see Michael Clayton at an auction. We quickly get the idea they are selling off the various supplies in the restaurant, trying to make money, to repay the debt for the now closed restaurant and bar. We soon learn Michael was the main backer for the restaurant and its closure has left him deeply in debt. We also learn his brother was the manager behind the failed enterprise. All of these various elements help to color every action Michael makes through the remainder of the film. I really enjoy this type of exposition, because it makes the characters seem richer and more interesting. When I see this type of thing happening, successfully, it also raises my hopes for the film in general.
It is also refreshing to watch Gilroy’s work as a director. Much like his writing, he is clearly going for something different. In the “Bourne” films, the writer gave us a lot of detail about the characters while orchestrating Bourne’s fight for the truth about who he actually is. Interestingly, the films share only the most basic premise with the books. In “Clayton’, the writer and director achieves the same effect in a more subdued film. Michael is in danger throughout the film, but he isn’t a spy with amnesia, he is a lawyer, living in New York, dealing with a lot of problems. They are very different characters but created in a similar fashion.
As Gilroy introduces the various threads of the story, he makes us wait until he is ready to show us how they all fit together. This may be maddening for some, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Real life doesn’t lay out all the details in a set fashion. Real life is messy and “Clayton”'s story reflects this.
All of the performances throughout the film are outstanding.
Clooney’s character is similar to the role he played in “Syriana” in that both men are reluctant heroes who are out to discover the truth. But in “Syriana”, Clooney’s role was one of many characters with similar goals. It is a good performance, worthy of the attention it received, but it is a Supporting Performance. Because Michael Clayton is at the center of the new film, Clooney has more screen time, allowing him to develop the character more fully. We can see Michael’s frustration with his current position in society because he has a lot to be frustrated about; broke, deceived by a family member and unhappy with his job; he is desperate to make a change. His job allows that, because he is a Fixer, someone who makes things happen. Having done this job for so long, he has contacts and his character is slightly tarnished. He isn’t above doing something slightly illegal if he believes he won’t be caught.
So when he starts to deal with the problem named Arthur, he seems slightly surprised to find himself investigating the same leads his friend did. Why is he trying to prove U-North is guilty? They are the firm’s biggest clients. If they lose money, the firm loses a big client, a client it would be difficult to replace with the history of this loss following them. He has brief moments when he realizes what he is doing and they shock him, he isn’t normally this person. Where did this person come from?
But he soon realizes this large company made many, many people sick and they shouldn’t get away with it. That is what spurs him into action. Arthur was right.
Tom Wilkinson does a great job with the role of Arthur. This is the type of role that could so easily become a hammy showcase for an actor’s bravura skill, but Wilkinson makes the character believable by making him more restrained, giving him moments of clarity, allowing him to think ahead of all of the other people in the story.
We first see Arthur in a Minneapolis jail. U-North is based in this city and Arthur snapped during the deposition, ripping his clothes off, while the video camera is rolling. Naturally, as lead counsel, U-North is very nervous about their case, which is why Michael is sent in, to smooth things over. Initially, Arthur just appears crazy, as though someone who has spent 10% of his or her life defending someone who is guilty, really guilty, would feel. But as Arthur talks, and he talks a lot, some of the things he says start to click in Michael’s thoughts.
Throughout, we see glimpses of the lawyer Arthur used to be. Arthur tells the people at U-North he has a document that will all but win the case for the plaintiffs. He goes so far as to read it on the phone, when he realizes he is being bugged. These moments, juxtaposed with the “crazy” moments- after being out of touch for a while, Michael spots Arthur walking back to his loft carrying a bag filled with over a dozen fresh baked baguettes, helping Wilkinson create a character who is almost mesmerizing to watch. We rarely see someone like this in a film and Wilkinson’s performance makes the character all the more unusual and interesting.
Tilda Swinton’s Karen Crowder, Chief Counsel for U-North, is the villain of the story. Even though all of the characters have definite shades of gray, she is the force behind all of the bad things happening throughout the story. Much like Wilkinson’s character, she brings different layers to the role, making her more than simply a villain. If she were just the villain, she would be fun to watch, but because she has these extra elements to her character, she is even a little sympathetic.
Karen is the Chief Counsel for this large company. She has nothing else, no husband, no children; every waking moment is about protecting this company that has given her the keys to the kingdom. Her boss, played by Ken Howard, has trusted her with this position, a powerful role in a large company generating billions every year, and she must do her best to reward his trust. As a woman, she feels she has to show everyone she is in contact with how powerful she is and prove it on a constant basis. The company used to be run by men, so she has to blend in. She likes the power and wants to maintain it, so she goes to great lengths to paint a portrait of power and determination.
All of this is great, and helps to make Karen a forceful personality in the film. But as we get more and more glimpses of this character, we realize she is very unsure, very afraid of losing her job, her power, and her image. Early on, we see this woman, this definition of successful businessperson, in her hotel room airing out her extremely sweaty armpits, trying to dry them out before a big presentation. This woman in nervous. Why is she so nervous? Is she nervous about her abilities? There are other moments revealing the vulnerabilities of this character, showing us this woman who is so determined to appear powerful is really very scared. As we learn more about both sides of this character, we see she is at conflict with her self and she becomes even more interesting.
Sydney Pollack, who also serves as one of the film’s producers, plays Michael’s boss. It is the least interesting of the four roles, but it serves it’s purpose. His character is the head of an extremely large law firm, working a very large case, who must juggle many different responsibilities, keeping all of the balls moving.
“Michael Clayton” is part espionage thriller, part human drama, part “Erin Brockovich”. But it works on all three counts. There is a particularly memorable scene in which one of the threats to the case is dispatched in an efficient manner unlike anything I have ever seen in a film. Each of the characters has strains on their life outside of the job, adding to their development, making them seem more human, more vulnerable. And the case at the center of the film, while fictionalized, is no doubt based on an actual incident, giving Michael Clayton many of the same aspects as Julia Robert’s Oscar winning character.
“Michael Clayton” is a very good film, on all counts.