As odd as it sounds, ‘Michael Clayton’ is an anti-action movie. It’s a movie about the power of words, information and language. It’s riveting. Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut (he’s been a screenwriter) is a direct and frontal assault on capitalism.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a lawyer in a high-powered law firm. We meet him in a card game, and his phone rings. He is needed. A client has killed a pedestrian with his car, and has left the scene of the accident.
In the middle of the night, Clayton drives to a gated suburb of mansions. The man is not only justifying what happened, but is insulted that they’ve sent Michael Clayton to see him. Clayton doesn’t get upset, he just explains he’s a cleanup man, a janitor, trying to make a really messy situation a little less messy by digging the law firm’s claws a little deeper into the client.
Clayton has been at the law firm for about 15 years, but he’ll never make partner. Driving back to the city at sunrise, he stops. Maybe he’s having a moment of self-doubt. He walks up a hill where three horses are. His car is then blown up.
The rest of the movie is given to us in flashbacks. It’s a good, tricky device to keep us thinking, because contrary to everything in Hollywood, there are no big action scenes in “Michael Clayton.”
Going back in time, Clayton flies to Milwaukee. The firm’s chief litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), is defending a Monsanto-ADM conglomerate called U North. He’s also a highly medicated litigator. While doing a deposition against a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit charging U North with contaminating the ground water, Edens decides to finish his deposition with no clothes on, with the exception of his socks. Hence the fixer Clayton is needed to convince Mr. Edens that he might need a little more medicine. Damage control is on everyone’s mind.
When we first see Karen (Tilda Swinton), the chief attorney for U North, she’s in the bathroom having a panic attack. Sweat from her armpits is flowing and staining her shirt. She’s looking in the mirror, mimicking and practicing her “corporate-speak” of how her clients have been unjustly accused. You can see traces of Meryl Streep in “Swinton,” and here she seems possessed by the lies in her representation of this corporate conglomerate.
She has hired Arthur Edens to litigate the case and is obviously not happy when she hears about Edens’ escapades.
Don’t go to see “Michael Clayton” if you think you’re going to see a Rocky-like Erin Brockovich hero. There’s almost no one to like in this film except the young plaintiff from a Wisconsin farm family being run off of their land.
Edens might have gone crazy, but not because of the meds. He’s gone crazy because he’s uncovered a document that proves U North has, in fact, poisoned the ground water. Karen, on her own, hires a “Blackwater-like” contract killing firm to do some real damage control.
Film director Kilroy could not have known that within weeks of the opening of the film, Blackwater would gain international attention for murdering 14 Iraqi civilians, but nevertheless his timing is perfect. The three men, portrayed in their very Nazi style, make a clear case against hiring contract killers.
Clooney and the cast seem bent to bring us the bad news that we keep forgetting. And there seems to be a whole Hollywood cadre that seems to expose the nature of this beast. As the nightly news becomes more “National Enquirer” and entertainment, it seems we have to go to the movies to see the real “unquieter” when we should be seeing this on the network news.
In a week where Hillary Clinton’s laugh has garnered the center of attention, it seems almost obscene for us to fork over $10 to watch what should be straightforward news.
“Michael Clayton” works because the delight of the movie is in the words, not in the motion of the picture. It’s a very moving one.