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Michael Clayton (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 23, 2023


Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Michael O'Keefe, Ken Howard, Sean Cullen, Austin Williams, Terry Serpico and Remy Auberjonois.

Screenplay by Tony Gilroy.

Directed by Tony Gilroy.

Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures. 119 minutes. Rated R.

It takes some real confidence for a filmmaker to name a movie Michael Clayton.

After all, that title tells a prospective audience absolutely nothing about what they are getting themselves into. Is it a drama? A comedy? A horror film? Sci-Fi? A documentary? A cartoon? Art film? A musical? Porno? An industrial training movie?

It's not like it's even a familiar designation – people have never heard of Michael Clayton – in fact, it is the name of a fictional character. Yeah, there is a football player with the same name, but are they really likely to name a movie after him?

You just know there was some studio suit trying desperately to get them to change the title to something which would work better on a movie poster – something snappy that they can sell.

If you are going to give a picture a non-descript name like this, you better be planning to bring your A game, or it will fade away quickly.

Well, to his credit, writer/director Tony Gilroy (who had also written the Bourne movies) has met the challenge. Michael Clayton is one of the best dramas of the year.

Clooney – who just keeps getting more nuanced and riskier as an actor – plays the title role. Clayton is a legal fixer, the guy at a huge law firm who makes the really dirty cases fade away.

At different points in the film, the lawyer refers to himself as a janitor or a bagman. Both are legit descriptions, Clayton is not a trial lawyer per se (not that he wouldn't love the opportunity to be a more traditional lawyer), but he knows where the bodies are buried and where the dirt is. He is able – through just slightly morally ambiguous means – to cover up the most unsavory cases.

Of course, his life is every bit as messy as any of his cases. He is divorced. He is a recovering gambling addict. He has just blown his entire nest egg on a failed restaurant with his alcoholic brother. He is feeling insecure about his career and just vaguely guilty that he is doing lowest-common-denominator law – particularly since he is a former DA who took his current job for the money.

His latest project (it's hard to actually call it a case – he is really just trying to plug a leak in another lawyer's job) is just making his doubts all the more immediate in his life. An older lawyer (Tom Wilkinson) for the firm – sort of a more senior equivalent of his hatchet man – is working for a huge corporation called uNorth which is in the middle of a class-action suit that they may have dumped harmful chemicals on a small town, bringing illness and death to the place.

The lawyer in charge seems to have cracked, he strips in the middle of negotiations and starts ranting about his client's guilt. However, is he insane or is he finally seeing the light?

Clayton is assigned to babysit the older lawyer as the firm and the corporation circle their wagons. However, it becomes more than just a simple spin-control situation as more and more cracks appear in the case and subterfuge goes on behind the scenes.

Michael Clayton is a smart, cynical, surprisingly moving film. It works on several levels at once and is never less than fascinating. In a world where big business appears to be running amok, this is a stunning warning shot over the public's bow.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: October 24, 2007.

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