The screenwriter Tony Gilroy wrote all three insanely successful Bourne movies, and you could be forgiven for thinking that his directorial debut, Michael Clayton, which is nominated for seven Oscars and out on DVD this week, is a thriller. In the Bourne tradition, Clayton features terse dialogue, a pair of professional killers, and one exploding Mercedes. But beneath the expertly deployed suspense lies something more interesting: an indictment of the mercenary universe of white-shoe law firms and a devastating—and unusually accurate—look at the demoralized lives of the lawyers who work for them. Granted, George Clooney’s Clayton is an improbable 17th-year associate. But when he says, “I’m not a miracle worker; I’m a janitor,” he could be speaking for the whole profession.
Michael Clayton’s true cinematic predecessor isn’t The Firm or A Civil Action but another movie about professional burnout, Network, in which Peter Finch’s unhinged anchorman becomes a sort of mad prophet, decrying the decline of nightly news. The joke in Network is that Finch’s character is obviously nuts, but he might also be right. “This is not a psychotic episode,” he bellows. “This is a cleansing moment of clarity!”
Clayton’s mad prophet is Arthur Edens (the blissfully frazzled Tom Wilkinson), a Manhattan litigator in the midst of a manic breakdown. Edens’ wife has died, his daughter has run off to Europe, and he has stopped taking his medication. He tabulates the time he has devoted to defending a chemical company, U/North, in a massive class-action case—”Six years. Four hundred depositions. A hundred motions. Five changes of venue. Eighty-four thousand documents in discovery”—and concludes that he has pissed away “12 percent of my life.”
Compounding Edens’ alarm is a document he has discovered that confirms that U/North is guilty of knowingly selling a toxic product: proof he’s been defending the bad guy. As a former prosecutor turned perpetual associate turned fixer for the firm, Clayton is dispatched to get Edens under control. “You are a senior litigating partner at one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world,” he says.
“I’m an accomplice,” Edens shoots back.
Of course, the lawyer morality tale has been done to death. Gilroy himself has the dubious distinction of having written The Devil’s Advocate, which, to paraphrase Churchill, was a high-concept movie wrapped in a pun based on a cliché. But whereas your standard lawyer-finds-his-soul picture unfolds in a fantasy milieu of mahogany furniture and leather-bound volumes, Clayton takes place in the round-the-clock beehive of the modern corporate office. Location shots in the sterile corridors and glass-cube offices of actual New York firms add an element of realism, as do little touches like the team of unhappy-looking young associates dispatched to Milwaukee in the midst of a snowstorm to camp out in a conference room and do depositions.
As Clayton, Clooney has the raccoon eyes and zombie mien of a lawyer sucked dry by the job. Look around next time you’re riding the subway, or waiting for your order at Starbucks, and you’ll spot the type. It’s no secret that lawyers at even the biggest, most prestigious firms are miserable. For half a century the American law firm has flourished on a basic contradiction: The firms pay associates salaries but bill them out by the hour. In the ‘70s, firms might expect 1,800 billable hours a year; today some New York associates bill 3,000.
In Michael Clayton, as in real life, the firm doesn’t employ people so much as consume them, creating a culture in which personal or familial obligations always take second place to work. Like a disproportionate number of lawyers, Clayton is divorced, and in one touching, sadly recognizable scene, he drives his 10-year-old son, Henry, to school, completely lost in his own thoughts as Henry tries to engage him in conversation.
As Karen Crowder, U/North’s general counsel, Tilda Swinton plays the villain. But when we glimpse her alone—while she dresses for work or has a panic attack in a bathroom stall—we realize she’s just as lost as Clayton. “Who needs balance?” Crowder says, when an interviewer asks how she reconciles her demanding job with the rest of her life. “When you really enjoy what you do … there’s your balance.”
When, in a nod to thriller convention, Crowder starts calling in professional hits, it strains verisimilitude. But only just. Her fidelity to the job is absolute—she has nothing else, after all—and she offers a frightening specter of “zealous advocacy” taken to its logical extreme.
Crowder is so tightly wound that she raises an interesting question: Do the studies showing high rates of depression among lawyers tell us something about the profession or the people who go into it? Crowder is a neurotic and a perfectionist; in that respect, she’s the kind of lawyer you want on your team. (She will worry so that you don’t have to.) But if that’s the self-selecting type who migrates to the law, it seems unfair to ask them to be happy as well. “I fear that happiness isn’t in my line,” Benjamin Cardozo observed in 1933, blaming “the disposition that was given to me at birth.”
Whatever the explanation, Michael Clayton offers an only slightly exaggerated portrait of a profession undergoing a kind of slow-motion existential crisis. It does so at a time when in the real world, midlevel associates are dropping out in droves. At Sullivan and Cromwell, where annual associate attrition has reached 30 percent, management recently prevailed on partners to “be sensitive to not canceling associates’ vacations.” Firms are attempting to accommodate the lifestyles of their employees in a variety of ways, from “kindness committees” to weekly yoga sessions.
Above all, the firms are throwing money at associates to get them to stay. When my class finished law school in 2004, starting salaries for associates in New York were $125,000. Now they’re $165,000. That’s a great deal of money, but as an inducement, it may ring hollow to lawyers who spend their days at the beck and call of bankers and hedge-funders who make vastly more. Michael Clayton has gambling debts, and he lost money in a bad investment on a bar. He needs $75,000, and a wizened loan shark, Zabel, says to him, with some surprise, “I didn’t think it was going to be a problem.” But Zabel overestimates Michael’s income. With lawyer money you can invest in a bar or have a gambling problem. But not both. (For that you really need to be a banker.)
Ultimately, Michael Clayton is a movie about redemption—but also about naiveté. As Michael tries to retrace the trail of incremental compromises back to his original decision to become a lawyer, to find the point where his profession and his principles diverged, you wonder why it has taken a manic breakdown and an exploding Mercedes to prompt such basic self-reflection. As Marty Bach, the firm’s unflappable founding partner, Sydney Pollack offers a much-needed counterpoint: a corporate lawyer who loves his life and his work. With his townhouse and his trophy wife, Bach is not lonely or alienated like Michael or Karen Crowder. Nor is he disillusioned about the work he does, if only because he had fewer illusions to begin with.
“What if Arthur wasn’t crazy?” Michael asks. “What if he was right?”
“The case reeked from Day One,” Bach acknowledges impatiently. “Fifteen years in, I’ve got to tell you how we pay the rent?”
In thriller terms, the ending of Michael Clayton is a letdown—the intricate and original plot is resolved with a Law & Order-style third-act gimmick. But as Clayton walks out into the bright sunlight on Sixth Avenue and hails a cab, he’s enacting a fantasy nurtured by many a weary associate (and acted on by a number I know). He’s extricating himself from the firm, overriding the risk-aversion instinct, and walking away—without a new job or a backup plan.
“Give me $50 worth,” he tells the cabbie, in a sly reminder that we are all paid for our labor and our time. Then the camera lingers on Clooney’s face for several minutes, in a long, unbroken, almost uncomfortably close shot. And if you stop watching before the very end, you’ll miss seeing him do something he hasn’t done throughout the film. He smiles.