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Michael Clayton
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Another Home Run From George Clooney"
5 stars

Yes, Virginia, there really was a time when American cinema contained complex storylines, social commentary and characters that were allowed to be flawed and ambiguous instead of being purely good or purely evil. During this period–historians have referred to it as “the Seventies”–not only did these films, including such titles as “The Parallax View,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “All the President’s Men,” to name a few, exist, they were designed as mainstream entertainments to be enjoyed not by the critics and the public alike. Somewhere along the line, however, this vogue for intelligently crafted and socially committed popular entertainment fell by the wayside for a number of reasons–some historians tend to offer the knee-jerk explanation “Star Wars” in the same way that high school teachers reduce the myriad details leading up to the Civil War as “slavery”–and such films became the exception rather than the rule and on the rare occasions when one would actually slip through the filmmaking apparatus, it would only be because the studio in charge figured that such a film might score the Oscar nominations that their blockbuster gumdrops were never going to receive

One movie star who has chosen to use his considerable box-office clout to keep this cinematic tradition alive against the odds over the years is George Clooney. Whether he has been doing this out of a deep love for the films of that bygone era or as a form of continued penance for appearing in one of the crappiest corporate-driven films ever made, the disastrous “Batman & Robin,” I cannot say but whatever the reason, the end result has been one of the most fascinating filmographies in recent years. As an actor, producer or director, he could easily be making a career out of doing shallow entertainments for enormous paydays but instead, he has used his considerable clout to instead put forth such challenging and hardly sure-fire films as “Three Kings,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Fail-Safe,” “Solaris,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Syriana” and “The Good German.” Although not all of these films were successful from a box-office standpoint (which explains his occasional appearances in such smartly conceived blockbusters as the “Ocean’s Eleven” films), they were all smart and thoughtful films that were among the best of their respective years and if they had been made during the 1970's, it is likely that film connoisseurs would be venerating them today as much as they have done with other classics of the era. His latest film, “Michael Clayton,” continues this streak by giving viewers a taut, exciting and thoughtful legal thriller that is so smartly conceived and executed that to call it a “legal thriller” almost sounds demeaning.

Clooney stars as Michael Clayton, an employee of the elite New York corporate law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. Although a former criminal prosecutor, he is not employed by the firm as a lawyer per se. Instead, he is their in-house “fixer,” the guy who gets sent out to clandestinely settle or smooth over unsavory legal problems involving the firm’s top clients–Jodie Foster played a similar type recently in Spike Lee’s “The Inside Man” as she tried to manipulate a bank robbery and the subsequent police standoff in order to protect a client who was at risk of having some very dirty laundry aired to the public. Clayton is like that Jodie Foster character maybe a decade or so down the line–although he knows that he is good at his job, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he has grown steadily disenchanted with it (he refers to himself not as a “fixer” but as “a janitor”) and wants to abandon it for more traditional courtroom work. The senior members at the firm feel otherwise because while they have plenty of people on hand who can do competent work in a courtroom, none of them have the particular skill set to do what Clayton does so effortlessly. Unfortunately for Clayton, his personal life is currently a shambles–he has a messy divorce, a gambling problem, massive debts from an unsuccessful business venture and a brother with financial problems of his own–to such a degree that even though he might very much want to quit his job for greener pastures, he is forced to stick with it simply to keep his head above water.

For his latest bout of janitorial work, Clayton is sent off to Milwaukee to deal with some troubles arising from one of the firm’s top attorneys, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who is representing the U/North conglomerate in an eight-years-running class-action lawsuit regarding a weed killer that is supposedly responsible for a number of deaths. On the verge of a possible settlement, Edens reportedly snapped during a deposition hearing of a young woman who is one of the plaintiffs and took off all his clothes. Since Edens has had some emotional problems in the past for which he is taking medications, Clayton assumes that he just temporarily went off his meds and assures U/North’s corporate counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), that everything will be sorted it. When Clayton gets to Edens, he discovers that the attorney’s breakdown is not simply a chemical imbalance–he has discovered materials that prove that U/North really is guilty of the crimes that they have been accused of and he simply can’t stomach the idea of helping another corporation squirm off the hook as a result of his legal expertise. When Clayton further discovers that Edens plans on making his discoveries known to the aforementioned plaintiff as a way of making amends for his past misdeeds, the fixer has to decide whether to use his consummate skills in the service of justice or his career–it may be a moot decision because when Crowder gets wind of what Edens has uncovered, she begins to contemplate muzzling both him and Clayton with something a little more severe than a non-disclosure agreement.

As I said earlier, “Michael Clayton” may be correctly described as a legal thriller but such a description hardly seems adequate. Such a description inspires thoughts of a by-the-numbers drama involving cardboard characters being jerked around by the machinations of an increasingly contrived screenplay leading up to an unlikely courtroom climax that manages to reward the good guys and punish the bad ones in the neatest manner possible and one of the great things about the film is the way that it manages to avoid all of those traps–so much so, in fact, that I don’t actually recall a single scene that actually takes place within the confines of a courtroom. This is a bold move on the part of writer-director Tony Gilroy to be sure, but it is likely that viewers will be so spellbound by what is on screen that they will hardly notice that the expected cliches are nowhere to be found. As he did in his screenplays for the three Jason Bourne movies, Gilroy once again demonstrates a knack for taking immensely complicated and complex storylines and hammering them out in a way that allows viewers to more or less follow along with what is going on without ever stopping the story in its tracks in order to slowly explain every single detail for the benefit of the slower people in the audience. (As a result, this is the rare kind of adult thriller that actually benefits from multiple viewings.) And while the film may mark Gilroy’s debut in the director’s chair, you wouldn’t know it from the evidence presented on-screen–he has a easy confidence that gives the film the feel that it is in the hands of one of those 70's auteurs like Alan J. Pakula or Sidney Lumet to whom the film clearly owes a sizeable stylistic debt. His approach may appear to be simple and unfussy but he is also capable of a beautifully lyrical visual when such a moment arises (such as a bit in which Clayton pulls to the side of the road to contemplate some horses in the dawn’s early light) as well as dramatic fireworks–the climactic confrontation between Clooney and Swinton is easily one of the most electrifying scenes to appear on a movie screen this year.

At its heart, however, “Michael Clayton” is an actors movie and Gilroy has assembled a top-notch cast who take to the material with the kind of relish that is rarely seen on the screen these days. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the contributions of George Clooney, whose turn in the central role is one of his very best performances to date. As an actor, he knows how and when to turn his considerable personal charm on and when he does, as in the “Ocean’s Eleven” films, he is one of those performers that it is almost impossible to dislike. However, he also knows how and when to turn off that charm when it isn’t required and his transformation here is quite startling–instead of the twinkly-eyed movie star we know and love, he simply becomes a beaten-down man who hates his job and his life but is powerless to do anything about either until circumstances force him to take a stand once and for all. As his corporate rival, Tilda Swinton offers up a mesmerizing portrayal of corporate loathsomeness at its most blandly evil while Tom Wilkinson is haunting as the kind of man who, to quote another movie from that bygone era of the 70's, is mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. Among the supporting players, my favorite is Sydney Pollack as the firm partner who bluntly explains to Clayton the way things really work (“After 15 years, I have to tell you how we pay the rent?”)–although better-known as a director, he has quietly put together a collection of supporting performances over the years (including turns in“The Player,” “Husbands and Wives” and “Eyes Wide Shut”) that would be the envy of most full-time actors.

Obviously, “Michael Clayton” is a film that serves as an indictment of the heartlessness of contemporary corporate culture and the potential futility of standing up to such a seemingly invincible opponent (which is ironic when you consider that its distributor, Warner Brothers, is part of a multi-national corporate structure itself) and while there is no doubt about the direction of its social and political leanings, it doesn’t merely spend two solid hours of hitting you over the head with them. Instead, it wraps them within the context of an undeniably gripping drama that will keep you on the edge of your seat while watching it and continue percolating in your mind for days after you’ve seen it. For Gilroy, it marks a remarkable directorial debut and a signal of promising things to come. For Clooney, it is yet another personal and professional triumph that further solidifies his position as one of the most fascinating leading men working in films today. For intelligent moviegoers who have despaired of seeing any adult-oriented dramas that don’t hit you over the head with their obvious story points (what we like to call the Paul Haggis Factor), it is a welcome reminder of a filmmaking style that used to be the norm instead of the exception

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16351&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/05/07 00:24:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/25/14 virginia Never get tired of this American masterpiece. 5 stars
5/31/11 Monday Morning FYI, Roger Ebert did a great follow-up on this film dated 5/29/11. Check it out. 5 stars
12/04/10 fmc Are you what you do? Thats what Clooney wrestles with. Wonderful film. 5 stars
9/11/10 Monday Morning Better Hitchcock than Hitchcock. 5 stars
1/20/10 Stanley Thai An engrossing thriller that has brains. The cast is wonderful! 4 stars
10/01/09 Roy DeMeo Horrible- Kept watching hoping something would change. Too many sub-plots VERY CONFUSING 2 stars
3/06/09 MP Bartley Nothing remotely new, but the acting keeps it chugging along. 4 stars
2/22/09 mr.mike Uninteresting and repetitive. Clooney is awful. 2 stars
10/27/08 Michael M Unsuspensful at times, with plotlines that added nothing. Final scene is very satisfying. 3 stars
6/06/08 R.W. Welch Well plotted corporate skullduggery stuff. Solid cast. 4 stars
5/03/08 L. Hansen Incredible film. You describe every bit eloquently, Peter. Thanks. 5 stars
4/04/08 Arcane So serious its boring. Crap 1 stars
4/04/08 Wilbur Most boring Action film ever! only ONE explosion! 1 stars
3/25/08 Brad Pitt I should have gotten the lead. Then I could bang Angie in my trailer. 4 stars
3/16/08 hatrip A well made corporate film that absorbs, but lacks something in it's execution 3 stars
3/13/08 Jefenator Well-written, well-acted. Very satisfying thriller! 5 stars
3/02/08 ladavies Pretty good movie there George. 4 stars
11/24/07 martha very well acted, written & directed.Recommend this movie to all. 5 stars
11/08/07 Zigurrat Decent Film, but the idea that anyone would kill to protect a corporate job is unbelievable 4 stars
11/05/07 Jim Duca Boring and predictable. Erin Brockavich in pants, 2 stars
10/22/07 Ole Man Bourbon George Clooney is anything but unpretentious. Entertaining movie, though. 4 stars
10/20/07 Ethan Good acting, but a slow moving storyline. 3 stars
10/16/07 Elizabeth Wonderfully acted, too pat an ending. 4 stars
10/16/07 Meta Baron A half decent made for TV movie but not much more. Predictable too. 3 stars
10/16/07 anon.. not as good as people say 3 stars
10/15/07 George Lee Well-acted tedium. 2 stars
10/14/07 Martha Lynne Utterly gripping and satisying. Clooney could not be better. 5 stars
10/14/07 Zeke Argo Shallow characters and pacing is laborious at best. Not worth the hype or the time. 2 stars
10/14/07 Monday Morning This is a superb story that has you thinking every minute. Beautifully made, too. 5 stars
10/13/07 Richard Loeffler Good but not as great as most reviews would have it. 4 stars
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  05-Oct-2007 (R)
  DVD: 19-Feb-2008

  28-Sep-2007 (15)

  18-Oct-2007 (MA)

Directed by
  Tony Gilroy

Written by
  Tony Gilroy

  George Clooney
  Tom Wilkinson
  Tilda Swinton
  Sydney Pollack
  Michael O'Keefe
  Ken Howard

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