Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.) feels so fresh, so smart, so different from the standard-issue legal thriller that it isn’t until nearly an hour in that you notice how conventional a movie it actually is. The bones of the story are recognizable from courtroom dramas like The Verdict or … And Justice for All: A burned-out attorney finds his conscience when he uncovers a case so rotten that he can’t not fight the good fight. But first-time director Gilroy (who scripted the first two Bourne movies and collaborated on the third) has a knack for tunneling deep into cliché and coming out the other side.
The title character, elegantly embodied by George Clooney, is something of a spiritual brother to Matt Damon’s tormented amnesiac spy. Michael Clayton is a Jason Bourne who, unlucky for him, actually does remember all the terrible things he’s done. Michael is the fixer for a top-drawer New York legal firm, a former public prosecutor who resides somewhere in the shadowy space between attorney and bagman. In essence, he’s paid to protect wealthy fuckups from publicity, and from their own consciences. As the movie opens—the first 20 minutes are slow but dense, packed with details that become important later—Clayton is heading upstate to provide counsel to a well-heeled hit-and-run driver. On his way back to the city, Michael is the target of an unexpected and mystifying act of violence. All at once, what was a portrait of the fixer at midlife becomes a different kind of movie as we flash back four days to learn how Michael, the firm’s consummate problem solver, has become its biggest problem.
The firm’s prize client is U/North, a Monsanto-esque agrochemical corporation nearing the end of a class-action lawsuit that’s dragged on for six years over the company’s promotion of a cancer-causing weedkiller. U/North is on the verge of settling quietly out of court when the chief architect of their defense, Michael’s friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), goes very publicly berserk. He strips naked during a filmed deposition and proclaims his love for the witness, a young woman who’s lost both parents to the carcinogen in question. Arthur is a diagnosed manic-depressive who’s gone off his meds, but his rants about the years he’s spent defending U/North’s poison have an almost oracular lucidity. When Michael is called in to babysit, Arthur makes it clear that he plans to blow the whistle, exposing internal memos that could jeopardize the settlement and bring down the company. And Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), U/North’s in-house counsel, is willing to do just about anything to keep that from happening.
A memo-wielding Davidtaking on an evil corporate Goliath: What better setup for an uplifting, edifying, and thoroughly dull film? But the great strength of Michael Clayton is that it’s no Erin Brockovich. Rather than a populist tale of class-action triumph, the movie is a grim vision of legal and ethical compromise at the top. All of the characters, including Michael, slog through the same moral muck, and all of them make indefensible decisions. But even Swinton’s Karen, a tightly wound ladder-climber who drives the most Faustian bargain of all, gets a moment of vulnerability as we watch her, trembling and sweating, practicing her lawyerly spiel in front of a mirror.
Tom Wilkinson is extraordinary in a role that could easily have been a platform for shameless hamming. Who doesn’t love to play the holy fool, the truth-telling madman? But Wilkinson is sly enough to make sure that we always see the keen legal mind at work behind Arthur’s torrent of babble. Sydney Pollack, who co-produced along with Clooney, takes his usual supporting-mensch role to new levels as the congenial but ultimately frightening head of the firm.
As for George Clooney, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role of Michael Clayton (at least of this generation; back in the day, Paul Newman could have done it). He neither tamps down his weapons-grade charm nor coasts on it. Instead, he makes it a part of the character’s history. Michael Clayton is the firm’s movie star, a man paid to get things done by the sheer force of his personality. Who better to play him than this most self-aware of actors?
If the film has a flaw, it’s that Michael’s back story—he comes from a working-class family of cops, has an ex-wife and a 10-year-old son, and has just gone into debt after a failed restaurant venture with his ne’er-do-well brother—is sketched too hastily, and abandoned too early, to accomplish its narrative purpose. Tony Gilroy could have made a whole different movie, a good one, about how Michael Clayton came to be Michael Clayton. But there’s no need for a prequel. I just want Gilroy to make another movie, and soon.