CAPSULE: George Clooney plays a legal "hired gun" for a prestigious law firm. He starts doing his own investigation when a friend assigned to a law case has a mental breakdown. The case involves a high-profile biochemical company that is being sued by farmers who claim the company's product caused deaths in their community. This is a tense thriller even if the basic plot turns out to be a little overly familiar. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
George Clooney is the star of some Hollywood blockbuster films. He is also the maker of smaller, higher-quality films like GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, SYRIANA, and THE GOOD GERMAN. The blockbusters are good for seeing once or twice and I am sure pay the bills. The little films are worth owning a copy of. They bear repeated watching. One such film is SYRIANA, which is intriguing in spite of the fact it was shot in a strange style that left me a little confused about what I was seeing. Even in the end I had a hard time telling what it was really all about, because it seemed to be told in only a semi-linear fashion and there were several sequences for which I am still unsure of how they fit into the complex plot. Superficially MICHAEL CLAYTON is filmed in that same disorienting style. However, underneath the plot is really surprisingly simple--even bordering on cliche. Very early on I knew where the plot was going. It was clear who were the good guys and the bad guys. And that made the individual scenes easier to understand also. Perhaps this is not quite as good a film as SYRIANA, but it is a lot easier to put together and once the viewer does that the style gets much less in the way.
Michael Clayton (played by Clooney) is a lawyer who is called a "miracle man" by other lawyers in his firm. He more modestly calls himself a "fixer" or a "janitor". When a client does something really stupid and illegal, Clayton comes in and cleans up the mess. He knows exactly what to do to get his clients off or to get them the absolute minimum punishment. He does this for his salary. He does not worry if the clients are misunderstood saints or if they are the scum of the earth. He is a legal hired gun. The current mess he is asked to clean up has only minor illegalities. A friend and co-worker Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) had a sort of breakdown in front of the client. Edens is a really good lawyer, but suddenly he just snapped and started taking his clothes off right in front of a client (a Monsanto- like company named U/North) and the people suing the client. This was not a quiet breakdown. It was more the sort that Howard Beal had in NETWORK. He spontaneously raves, usually against his client. Edens is declares himself Shiva the Destroyer, but what he is destroying is people's lives. Clayton goes in to try to patch things up and discovers that Edens makes a certain sense even when he is ranting.
This, by the way, is told in a four-day flashback after somebody has tried to kill Clayton. Just how he went from trying to settle things down with the client to being a potential murder victim is the thrust of the plot. And the plot is simple enough that it early on is clear who is doing what to whom.
This is in its way a film without special effects, almost without explosions. It does have the acting talents of Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack. I think that they are willing to work for less than scale because they agree with the politics of the film. In a film that pits small citizens against big corporations, it is hard not to agree with the politics of the film. What makes me curious is whether the film could have been written to draw the conclusion that the corporation is actually in the right and the little people really are not. I am not saying that I myself favor big corporations by any means, but it disturbs me a little that once we know who the opposing parties are we know immediately which side is favored without even considering the facts of the case. Siding against both corporations--and there are two that do not come off looking very good--seems almost too easy. This is not a bad film, but it is just not very daring politically. At least in some respects it took the cheap and easy route. Now if the film could have made us root for the chemical company or even the big legal firm, that would have been an unexpected piece of writing.
This film takes aim at some easy targets. It does not tell us very much about the real world that we did not already at least suspect. But it is a polished and engrossing thriller. While the style makes it a little difficult to piece together what is happening, that just makes it all the more satisfying when things clear up. I rate MICHAEL CLAYTON a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0465538/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper