First time director Tony Gilroy is best known for writing the first two Bourne movies. Those scripts crackled with energy and high-wire tension. In Michael Clayton, a new legal drama starring George Clooney, he has dialled back the action but upped the intrigue.
Mixing elements of Erin Brockovich—corporate malfeasance, but without the bustier—and Syrianna, Michael Clayton sees Clooney playing the world weary title character, a lawyer who specializes in damage control.
He is called in to fix a situation involving his firm’s top litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who suffered a nervous breakdown while taking a deposition in a multi-million dollar case. Clayton soon puts two and two together and figures out that Arthur’s mental collapse was triggered by an ethical dilemma.
Feeling that he has not been following his moral compass and perhaps has indirectly had a hand in corporate malfeasance that has led to the death of innocent people, Arthur behaves irrationally and calls himself “Shiva the God of Death.” It’s Clayton’s job to set him back on track.
On the other side of the table is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), a corporate lawyer who will do anything to protect her company’s reputation, even if that means breaking the law.
Michael Clayton is about the law, corporate responsibility and the limits to which a person will allow their morals to stretch before conscious kicks in.
Told mostly in flashbacks, Michael Clayton is the kind of socially aware, whistle blowing drama that packed ‘em in during the 1970s but has been largely absent from the multiplexes in recent years, but if anyone can entice audiences to a thriller with more paranoia than thrills it’s Clooney. His trademarked good looks are amply on display—Gilroy takes full advantage of his star, taking every opportunity to fill the screen with Clooney’s face—but this isn’t Danny Ocean, the calm, cool and collected character he played so successfully in the Ocean’s 11 series. Clayton is a conflicted character, a jaded, weak man with more problems than solutions.
Michael Clayton has some story problems—several storylines are left dangling and the end seems a bit too pat, but the three leads—Clooney, Swinton and Wilkinson—hand in great performances and it is a blast to see the great director Sydney Pollock, best known for making movies that unveil abuses of power, playing a grizzled senior litigator who may be a little less than honest.