His eyes are always weary while facing a client whose legal mess he has to clean up. He has to put up with people who irately bark at him after he bears the bad news that there is really no such thing as “options” and that the best he can do is to recommend a good attorney. When one client says that the law firm he works for said that he would be a miracle worker, he explains, “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor. The math here is simple: The smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean it up.”
He is the titular character of Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, which tells the story of a man whose life of working as a legal fixer at a powerful New York law firm has long left him deprived of any kind of idealism or aspiration. As played by George Clooney, he dresses in nice suits and exudes success and command in appearance but his wife has left him and his life moves from one crisis to another, whether a client’s or his own. Gambling is one addiction he cannot shake off and that only leaves him more incapable of paying off a $75,000 debt he owes to some dangerous people who mean business.
Amidst his broken life, he must now deal with his own firm’s chief litigator and his former mentor, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who is supposed to defend a powerful agro-chemical company called U/North against a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit regarding lethal pollution. Edens also has bipolar disorder, however, and after skipping a few medications and suffering from a mental breakdown, he is overridden with guilt that he may have been defending a corrupt corporation. Thus, the head of the law firm, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) sends Clayton in to take care of the problem, particularly since the executives at U/North, including chief legal executive Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), will do anything to eliminate all potentially damaging claims that may cost the company.
The plot is not laid out that straightforwardly in the opening scenes though and the film by writer/director Tony Gilroy (best known for the Bourne series) is a rarity in its desire to respect and challenge the audience’s intelligence to follow it. All the people in the movie know who the players are and what they mean to each other and Gilroy just lays out his knowledge of legal firm operations and enhances the tension by encouraging us to figure out for ourselves how the characters and their motivations relate to one another. It is like an elegant polish of the John Grisham novels — having the lawyers simply talk and feel like real lawyers without resorting to cornball, contrived subplots.
The movie, as implied by the title, is not really so much about its conspiracy plot anyway as it is about how Clayton feels about it. He has spent his entire life eschewing his own values to defend the malpractices of corporate culture and other misdemeanors in the shadows, though he had aspired to be a partner when he came into the law firm. It is only now when the issue hits closer to home and the stakes are riskier than anything he has dealt with before that his loyalties and personal ethics resurface to be tested.
The central performance by George Clooney is further proof that he has become one of the most magnetic actors of his generation. One mark of great screen presence is when a performance alone consistently draws our attention despite the plot’s varying distances from complete understanding or resolution. The crucial key to his success in movies with labyrinthine storytelling like Syriana and this one is in his ability to combine realist common sense with dogged determination to keep us empathizing with his plight of sorting through the moral and intellectual complexities of his maze.
Clooney’s is not the only character that is explored to unflattering depths, as Wilkinson and Swinton both deliver equally rich and intense performances. Swinton in particular is most daring for willing to pack on a few pounds and look more like a worn out, middle-aged woman weighed down by her job to maintain corruption rather than a merely conventional villain. Wilkinson’s role is equally tricky, as his character balances between standing as the moral center and being the wild card of the story.
In his first directorial effort, Gilroy, aided immensely by cinematographer Robert Elswit, shows a real eye for shot composition. There is an ominous quality to the lighting in every scene and a method in it to show the whites, shadows, and grays Clayton inhabits from the harshly bright daytime offices to the lonely evenings under lurid night lights and the empty gray field he runs through in the middle of nowhere at sunrise. And as he did with his writing of the Bourne movies, his screenplay and direction show a clean grasp of pure storytelling in what is really a deceptively simple plot, with a sense of pacing as to how much to reveal and leave the viewer to figure out the rest.
It is no surprise that Michael Clayton, besides being a cleverly crafted legal thriller, has been compared to '70s conspiracy classics like The Conversation. Like that film about a surveillance expert who questions the true meaning of his recordings, the movie is above all a character study of a man who faces a crisis of conscience after overlooking and ignoring one potentially damaging piece of evidence after another. It is even worse for Michael Clayton because he has actually made a living out of sweeping what he clearly knows to be dirt under the rug as a legal “janitor.” But just because he hides it there, it doesn’t mean he can abandon all knowledge of it.
Bottom line: Pretty close to brilliance.