S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Hello and welcome to the Michael Clayton episode of Slate.
S3: Money goes to the movies, I have to say, I remembered not liking Michael Clayton when I first saw it, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m Felix Salmon of Axios. I’m here with Annette SHYMANSKY. Hello. And we are here with one of the world’s biggest. Michael Clayton stands, Mr. Peter Kafka, Fox Media.
S1: Hello. I will accept that title.
S3: Peter, do you remember the first time you saw Michael Clayton? Was it in the theaters when it came out?
S1: Yep, it was in the Cobble Hill Theater off of Court Street. And I was by myself and feeling a lot of anguish about the world and that that movie just tapped right into it. And you came out feeling even more anguish about the world, more anguish, and also remarking on what a very good New York movie as we can get into that later. It got me right to love.
S3: I loved the idea of this is a New York movie. So, yeah, we’re going to talk about Michael Clayton, the George Clooney vehicle from when did it come out? 2007. 2007, just before he became a completely silver fox and some sparkling dialogue, some great direction. All of that coming up on Slate. Money goes to the movies. OK, Peter, we may as well start with. New York, the center of big law, the all of these large anonymous law firms and. I know you hung out with lawyers, do you think there’s any verisimilitude here?
S1: Well, you know, I do think that that if I knew more about the legal profession and big law, I might like this movie less. The fact that I’m imagining that this is what big lawyers are actually doing a sort of helps. But lots of other elements. I do recognize I do recognize all sorts of parts of New York and who lives where, how they live, how unless you are the main principle of the law firm, everyone lives in some kind of cramped housing. And there’s a bunch of journalism in there which is not really key to it, but it’s in the opening scene. And I do know what it’s like to to fish for a scoop and get shut down by by someone smarter and more powerful than you. And I certainly know what it’s like to be worried about your place in the professional tiers and wondering what happens to you next, what happens to you at a certain age if you haven’t gotten to where you want to go? What happens if your company gets sold? Will you still a place in that company? All that all of that really gets to me. Plus, it’s George Clooney doing a 1970s style sort of conspiracy story. It’s great. I love it.
S3: So, wow. You’ve just ticked off an amazing list of things there, which I’m like, oh, yeah. Oh, my God. Oh, yeah. And like, just literally in the past 90 seconds, I think I like this movie more already.
S1: Oh, it’s also it’s also a giant critique of from the get go of modern capitalism, like the opening line.
S3: So what’s the opening line and how does it critique modern capitalism?
S1: You’re hearing the guy who you later find out is the genius, but also insane lawyer who is sort of the other center of the movie describing this dream slash fantasy slash nightmare. He’s had this moment of clarity where he realizes he’s in Times Square and it ends with him saying, I’m basically that, that he is not going into the offices of this giant law firm every day, but he’s being excreted out of it. Working on behalf of the important line here is he says, I’m coated in a patina of shit and he’s describing being sort of the ass end of capitalism.
S4: And I had the most stunning moment of clarity.
S5: I realized, Michael, that I have emerged not through the doors of cannabis, not through the portals of our fast and powerful offer, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to greet the poison, the arm of the defoliant necessary for other larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity. And I had been quoted in this attack team shit for the best part of my life. The center of it and the state of it would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undo what I did. I took a deep breath and I set that notion aside. I table and I said to myself, As clear as this may be, as potent a feeling is, this is as true a thing as I believe that I have witnessed today. It must wait. It must stand the test of time. And Michael.
S6: Now, back to I should probably put my cards on the table that I really just like this movie the first great the first time I saw it was two nights ago. And I really, really, really just like this movie. All right, let’s go. Well, number one, the romanticisation of mental illness, the idea that, oh, someone who’s bipolar, schizophrenia, you know, they’re not crazy. They’re they’re not hurting other people. No, no. They see the truth of the universe where. No, no. Actually, in reality, these mental illnesses are horrible and what they can do to people’s lives. And it does not give people an insight into the universe. Also, the irascible genius that, OK, so this guy is stalking a young girl. He is committing the worst things you can do at work. But no, no, it’s OK. It’s OK because he’s such a good lawyer. That’s just get me started.
S3: OK, so let’s talk about the Tom Wilkinson character in that case, because this seems to be a locus of, well, people have strong feelings. I found him to be honestly, like little more than the MacGuffin. I guess I’m entirely in the middle between you guys.
S7: I don’t think that he had any particular insight. I think like the idea that he’s excreted out of the office every morning and covid and shit. It’s just, you know, I didn’t consider that to be a commentary on modern capitalism, but maybe it is. Certainly there is an element in which modern bankers and lawyers and people in those kind of white collar, high paid service industries, you know, they are the the assets of the firm. And everyone talks about how the assets of the firm, like walk out the door and down the elevators every day. And and so Sydney Pollack is the I guess, the senior partner in the firm. It’s clearly up to him to try and keep people happy, but also to make sure that they are producing. I can see I guess what I can’t see is how that character, like the the lawyer who goes off the rails. Sheds much light on that dynamic.
S1: I mean, look, he is clearly mentally ill. They’re clear about that. And I’m going to respectfully disagree with that. And I don’t think they’re romanticizing him. They make it quite clear that he’s ill and off the rails. And I also think Felix is right. He’s a MacGuffin, right. He kicks the thing off. But I think the other part he does, he is a truth teller to Michael Clayton. Often he says, you know, you basically are a shell of a person. He’s got a great insult where he says you live a rich and interesting life. But, you know, you’re not really a good lawyer. And I think he’s one of the many characters in the movie that are trying to do their job. And a lot of that involves doing unpleasant things. And he’s the one who sort of breaks from that at some point. And no, I would not want him representing me. And if I if he was related to me, I’d want to get him some help. So I agree with Anna there.
S3: And what did you think of the movie as a commentary on capitalism, or do you think it is a commentary on capitalism?
S6: Oh, yeah, no. I mean, I would definitely agree that that is what they are trying to get at. And again, I actually think this is another place where the movie really fails because the conceit of the film is that you have this agribusiness company that knew that its product, you know, could cause cancer, but it continued to produce it because it wanted to continue to make money. And when it comes out that or when this could come out, then the people at the company, the lawyers, start killing people. So in the real world, the real scandal is that when you have things like Boeing or with the Ford Pinto is that people potentially knew that something was going to go wrong. It kills people. They pay a big fine. People might get fired, but they’re just perfectly fine. And that’s the big scandal to them. And what this film is, it does, especially with the way the film ends as it wraps things up in a nice bow. And it makes everybody feel like we live in a world where, OK, the bad guys are getting theirs. And to me, I just found that very lazy. And it also doesn’t really say anything interesting.
S1: I do think there’s supposed to be a lot of ennui with Michael Clayton at the end. He does the heroic thing and the right thing, but he doesn’t feel good about it. And he’s wasted his life. He’s forty five. He doesn’t have nothing to show for it. He certainly can’t go into law. And yes, they do. They do try to kill people. They kill one person or swallowing the whole movie. I guess that’s the point of it. But their plan is that what they are doing, which is what all these companies do, is they’re they’re in a six year lawsuit. They’re dragging out. They always intend to pay some amount of money. And it’s just a matter of we want to pay X and the plaintiffs lawyers want this and we’re eventually going to reach some settlement. How long will that take? How much can we drag this out? And before Michael Clayton blows it up, they’re going to settle the three billion dollar lawsuit for, what, six hundred? Four hundred million. And they’ve they’ve explained that it’s all going to be fine. And that part definitely rings true. I mean, you can look at the for instance, the NFL players suing the NFL over over concussion related injuries. And and the NFL basically got them to settle for basically nothing. And the NFL players can no longer ever sue the NFL for allowing them to damage their brains. And I think that’s a pretty clear eyed look at it. And Michael Jordan is very much a 70s anti-hero, right? I mean, he’s charismatic and but deeply flawed and he wins in the end. But at what cost? I think that’s that’s the vibe they’re going for.
S3: You said something interesting there, Peter, when you said the like he can be a lawyer.
S7: Are you do you read his that the final scene of this movie is as Michael Clayton basically just doing a kind of mike drop and walking away from the whole legal thing?
S3: Because I have maybe a possibly Stralsund read on this whole thing, which is that he rescues the law firm and he does the one thing that is good for them. Like if you think of the power dynamic between the law firm and the company, the Agri-Business Company, you know, with the law firm for most of the movies on the back foot, they’ve given the gig to Tom Wilkinson, who’s crazy.
S7: And Tom Wilkinson does a lot of things which just completely not allowed illegal and unethical. And that gives you not a lot of leverage over the law firm. And then because of the fear of what you might be able to do to the law firm and prevent the merger and all of the rest of it, that causes a lot of agita at the highest levels and Sydney Pollack and all the rest of it.
S3: And then suddenly at the end, this this wonderful move by Michael Clayton, who’s like this cog in the law firm machine comes in, solves the whole problem for it. Suddenly the company, you know, is on the back foot. The law firm can be like, well, we weren’t responsible for them killing anyone. And the law firm is is the great big winner. And Michael Clayton is a hero. And he gets like a promotion and his job back. Right. May not get there.
S1: They won’t get their fees. He’s violated his NDA that he took four eighty thousand dollars. So that’s an issue. But do you think I mean, one of the plot points here is that the reason Ken Block and whatever the last name is of the law firm is, is so desperate to get this deal done, is because they’re selling themselves to London, to the unnamed English company. Do you think that the. A company that was going to merge with them wants to go ahead with this merger on those same terms after after this debacle involving dead lawyers and assassinations comes up.
S3: I mean, why not? And honestly, lawyers, lawyers always get their fees. You know, that type of the creditor class when you north enters bankruptcy, they’ll be fine.
S1: Fair enough. I mean, the main thing, right, is that he’s not a lawyer. I mean, he’s he’s he’s a bagman. He’s a he says over and over, I’m a janitor. He’s a fixer. I guess he could set a practice somewhere else.
S8: I’m not the guy that you kill. I’m the guy that you buy. Are you so fucking blind you don’t even see what I am? I’m the easiest part of your whole goddamned problem. And you’re going to kill me. Don’t you know who I am? I’m a fixer. I’m a bag man. I do everything from shoplifting housewives to congressmen. And you’re going to kill me. What do you need? Karen, lay it on me. You want to carry permit. You want a heads up on an insider trading subpoena. I sold out Arthur for 80 grand and a three year contract. And you’re going to kill me.
S1: One of the things that I’m confused about is that he is so enormously valuable at the company and very smart. And they make a big point of the fact that he’s not a partner, he’s not on a partner track. He doesn’t have the clout of the other high ranking lawyers. But if he’s so valuable and he’s so smart, wouldn’t he have figured out a way to carve himself out some equity? If he’s not a formal partner, wouldn’t he have more leverage? At this point? He’s scrambling to get a seventy five thousand dollar loan shark that cleared. And the whole point is that he looks very successful, but he’s less successful. But they show over and over that he’s very, very good at his job and very valuable. And all the lawyers depend on him. So you’d think he would be able to lever that into something bigger.
S3: And plus, if he’s, you know, remotely as competent as it seems that he is, like I’m all understanding why he might want to invest in his Fucka brother’s restaurant. But like, when you invest in your brother’s restaurant, you invest your money in your brother’s restaurant, you don’t go to a loan shark to borrow the money to invest in your brother’s restaurant. I mean, come on.
S6: Also, it’s he says it’s his walking away money. You don’t put your walking away money in a restaurant. That’s a really, really bad idea.
S1: Yes. To say they do say that he’s got a gambling problem. Right. So there’s a little bit of personality they’re looking at.
S3: But yes, it does seem like not the why is it a gambling problem exists to explain why he doesn’t have any money and the divorce and various other things. But there’s a bunch of stuff which doesn’t make sense in this movie. Top of the list for me is even if Tom Wilkinson is mentally ill, like. As a lawyer, there’s no great secret about what you do when you are in the middle of a lawsuit and you get documents which are germane to the outcome of the case, which is that they appear in discovery and you hand them over to the other side and the other side can then take that document and waive it in your face and say, look, you signed and you knew and all the rest of it, and then you have to defend against that. Right. The entire movie seems to be predicated on the idea that the other side doesn’t have this document and that alone would be professional suicide for any lawyer to just like to keep that document secret, like the idea that Sydney Pollack would like. Take a look at this document in his office and the first words out of his mouth like, why doesn’t the other side already have this is crazy.
S6: That’s another issue I kind of have. The film is that there are all of these plot points that are just so artificial and don’t make any sense whatsoever. But the reason they have them there is because they want you at the end of the film like that, because they start at the beginning and then they come back to the beginning and they want you to be able to be like, oh, it all makes sense. Now there’s this grand conspiracy and we have figured out the grand conspiracy, which to me fits into this film’s worldview, which again, I think is so simplistic and honestly just not that interesting.
S1: There’s all kinds of plot issues. I think they try to explain away the document problem till this in one point says, oh, yeah, we had a big warehouse fire a few years ago, and so we lost a lot of stuff.
S3: And but yeah, you would think the literal smoking gun document they have, they would they would have better track of the minute you get if you’re Tom Wilkinson, the minute you get that smoking gun, do you in great secrecy, take it down to your local coffee shop and get a thousand copies made or do you just send it to.
S1: I think the implication is that he has already had an episode or two at that point and has gone off the rails prior to finding that document or finding that document is part of him going off the rails.
S6: So can we maybe talk about the Tilda Swinton character as well?
S3: I mean, there is nothing I love in the world more than talking about Tilda Swinton characters.
S6: So, yes, I mean, I would say that she is the best thing in the film, even though I think her character is very poorly written. I think she does a lot with the material. I mean, the film is definitely setting up like she is this calculating very they show her from the very beginning performing. She’s artificial. They keep showing her like putting her clothing on, like she’s putting on a cast. She’s rehearsing. She’s rehearsing her lines. Exactly. And, you know, she’s very, very ambitious. They do the thing that all films do and they want to show a woman is ambitious. They have a run on a treadmill. And then you have the other woman who is the sweet, angelic farm girl and the farm girl. And these these are your two main female characters.
S3: I’m not sure this movie is the best Beltway’s.
S6: Oh, definitely. Doesn’t the Tilda Swinton character. There are moments where I do think that she shows that she’s conflicted or at least she’s very, very anxious. They show her sweating. They shower in a bathroom, just sweating. But I’m just curious what you guys think. What is interesting is there about her character.
S1: So I will say that when I do remember seeing this movie in the movie theater and thinking, oh, that is not a great female character in a very male movie, and they are sort of sketching her out as fairly one dimensional with some nods towards she’s got some frailty, but I’ve seen it many times. And the more I see it, the more sort of empathy I have for her. She like almost everyone else in this movie, with the exception of like Marty Bach, I think the the head lawyer is trying to keep up with the gears and machinery of her business and of capitalism in general. And she’s in over her head, as are a lot of folks. And she fails. And, you know, eventually she orders the murder of two people. And so it’s a movie. So you’ve got to go with it. But I do think, you know, she’s not sure when she’s ordering the murder, if she’s done the right thing. She’s clearly racked about it.
S6: And I wonder, after having killed him, someone was like, yeah, it’s like, should I have done that? Should I?
S3: I think one of the things that this movie gets wrong in that respect is the way in which white collar professionals and indeed most people who commit crimes beyond violent crimes kind of convince themselves that doing the right thing.
S7: It’s improbable to me that what you would have would be an executive, I think she’s the general counsel, the general counsel of a Monsanto Monsanto like company, sort of saying to themselves, well, you know, it’s my job to go and, you know, look, after all of the legal affairs of this company. And I guess part of my job is to just call in hits on people like that’s not how people think and it’s not what people do. And it’s not clear what conceivable incentive she would have to do that. She’s the general counsel of a major company. Like at the end of the day, even if they wind up firing her, she will be fine.
S1: She thinks she is shielding the company. She thinks she is shielding her boss, who’s made who used to be the general counsel. And she’s his protege. His name is on the document. Again, it’s a movie. And she slips into it. Right. Her boss gives her a number of this guy to call if there’s ever a problem that might be sort of off books. And she nervously calls him. And that guy’s sort of you can tell they have sort of talked around the idea of what they could do. And even when she orders the hit, the hit man sort of says, you have to tell me explicitly that you want to do this. Otherwise, I’m not sure. But I thought this might come up. So I did find a story. I want to read the lead of the story. The headlines about pig’s blood and cockroaches might have grabbed your attention yesterday over the scandal emerging from The Unusuals my and the U.S. state e-commerce giant eBay and goes on to explain that federal prosecutors in Boston have charged six former eBay employees, including the former head of corporate security, with criminal cyberstalking and witness tampering after an almost year long investigation into their effort to destroy the lives of a journalist and her husband. And the point of the story actually is that these guys are all very bad and they shouldn’t have done it. But for some reason and Wenig, the former CEO of eBay, who clearly did order this, is somehow managed to insulate himself from that. It’s not the same as ordering a murder. I didn’t murder anybody, but it is it is going way off the bat. You know, first of all, the CEO of the company shouldn’t be doing this. And then in theory, there should be. You know, Meg Whitman had a version of this at Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, not to mention like why I can’t write their stuff that they were calling in on left gentleman right where you don’t have the next layer down of a check and balance and someone saying, boss, we can’t do this or not enough people saying that. So there’s a there’s an echo. Right.
S3: And people take things into their own hands. They go crazy. So I think that’s that’s a fair point.
S6: And most people don’t send pig’s blood to journalists like that. That’s fairly rare for businesses to do.
S1: I don’t know. Marc Benioff had the woman who is now the head of the New York Times technology group detained because she wandered too close to one of his properties at one point. This was before he was saving journalism. I mean, I think you get enough money, enough power. It’s I’m always interested in that story where no one will tell you now. And the point of the story that told us one character doesn’t have that money and power, but she sort of aspires to it.
S3: She sees herself in line and she’s on some level. She is a henchman. She’s working on behalf of the guy that she’s trying to protect. And, you know, I think we can agree she makes an error of judgment. It’s a bad call. A bad girl. Yeah. I feel like something that she could get disbarred for that in certain places.
S6: Also, I have a question. Yeah. If you take all the effort to make it appear that somebody committed suicide, why then is your next plan to put a car bomb, which is a fairly public thing? Oh, Peter has not.
S1: I only have an answer because I did nerd out before this and read some of the Tony Gilroy script for this. And there’s a scene in that script where the two assassins are discussing the car bomb, which is not in the movie. And they say, where was this made or where’d you get it from? And they say Russians or Russians trying to look like Albanians. It’s as far away from the other thing as we can try to get. And in the movie, they don’t sell us out either. But I assume that everyone who sees that Michael Clayton had been blown up in a car bombing assumes that it’s a gambling related thing and it’s a loan shark. And I think that’s their intent, is to make it not look like this thing. That does make sense.
S3: But let’s go back to the beginning and the bits of it that at least you and I, Peter, can relate to. As you say, it’s a New York movie, but it’s not a very specific time.
S1: It’s before the crash. It’s cell phone, but pre iPhone, BlackBerry for the crash.
S3: Exactly like when phones aren’t smart, where you still can, like, disappear when newspapers have deadlines. And that’s like this crazy thing where, like at the beginning of the movie Sitting Bull because like, cool as a cucumber, he’s like, you can push me. You can say that you’re going to file the story anyway. But I know that you went to press twenty minutes ago, so you’re just bluffing, which is a great line. But like maybe a year later that couple years.
S1: But yeah, that would. Yeah, yeah. No it’s good. All the tech holds up I think, I think this movie would work. Yeah. I guess the deadline part wouldn’t work but yeah there’s you know, their earpieces are not as sleek as an air pod, but I don’t really know that they’re introducing an iPhone to this would change it. Everyone is on a phone constantly. It’s a great shot of Don Jeffries, the Monsanto CEO, and Tilda Swinton. And then, like a phalanx of other junior people trailing behind them, they’re walking down. Stabenow, they’re all on their phones, importantly talking. I just loved it.
S3: Oh, that was great. But yeah, the other thing that New Yorkers will definitely pick up on is, as you say, it’s a New York film and it really divides New York into the swanky residential bits of like the Upper East Side, the very quasi rural residential bits of Westchester, the very intense business district of Midtown, and then which I love, like the kind of cool and bohemian and edgy downtown loft living thing, which, again, like this is the last conceivable minute living downtown could have been considered cool and bohemian and edgy.
S1: Yeah, my guess is that’s actually too late even then. Yeah. 2007. But they make a point of showing how unfinished Tom Wilkinson’s loft actually is. I mean, it’s barely furnished, but there’s a great line again from from the Sydney Pollack characters like Arthur living downtown in some kind of loft, no doorman. It’s a disaster. And that part I do like that part because it shows you like how removed from that world he is that he doesn’t go downtown. He goes from midtown to Westchester and back.
S3: I will say that I will watch Sydney Pollack and absolutely. Any movie playing. Absolutely any character. He’s just yeah, he’s good. He always kind of plays the same character. He’s kind of the same here is he wasn’t eyes wide shut, you know. Yeah. Or Tootsie. But yeah, he just he does a fantastic job. He’s very smooth. He’s the one who doesn’t have any contradictions. You know exactly what he doing. Everything he does make sense. He reacts in the way that you think he would react. You know, one of his lawyers goes off the rails. He calls in Michael Clayton to fix the problem because that’s what Michael Clayton does. And that bit of he just wants his business, his law firm business to do well.
S9: What Martha was on to something. What do you mean on what you know? What if he wasn’t crazy? What if he was right about what they were on the wrong side, wrong side, wrong way? Everything, all of it. This is news. This case reeked from day one. 15 years in. I got to tell you how we pay the rent. But what would they do? What would they do if he went public? What would they do? Are you fucking soft? They’re doing it. We don’t straighten the settlement out. In the next 24 hours, they’re going to withhold nine million dollars in fees. Then they’re going to pull out the video of Arthur doing this flash dance in Milwaukee. They’re going to sue us for legal malpractice, except it won’t be anything from the win because by then, the merger with London will be dead. We’ll be selling off the goddamn furniture.
S3: That is the sort of capitalist heart of this movie. That makes sense, right?
S1: Yeah. He’s engineering’s exit, too. That’s a big point. He’s getting out. He’s selling the company which which freaks out everybody else in the law firm freaks out Michael Clayton. It freaks out Michael Clayton’s assistant. He’s like, we’re going to be OK, right? There’s a lot. And Michael Clayton is freaked out. He says, you know, once you sell the company, you’re out. And then I got to work with your guy Barry, who I hate but hates me. I’m screwed once you leave. They’re very specific about that.
S3: That bit, I think, is unrealistic. That kind of considers this is a typical M&A deal where like you have a company which is being sold to another company, then another new company takes over and then they’re in charge and they’re going to implement all of the protocols and management structures and expense reporting and everything. And you just need to do what they do because you’ve sold your. And in return for selling your company to that other company, you get lots of cash and then you are rich and then you can, you know, retire rich. And that’s how most mergers work. And that is not how law firm mergers work.
S1: You don’t think there’ll be redundancies and power struggles with London?
S3: I think there will be few. And in any case, like, there’s almost never any like significant cash changing hands in these things. It’s all just like, well, we can realize some economies of scale. But ultimately, the merger is just like bringing more and more lawyers together to do what lawyers do. And they still wind up making the same amount per partner. And it’s not like you’re handing over a bunch of cash for any assets other than the lawyers themselves. You need the lawyers to stay on.
S1: I will defer to your knowledge of of law firm M&A, but the idea of the company is changing hands. There’s going to be a new boss. The new boss will want to do things a different way with different people. Will I be one of those people that parts is very real. Yeah.
S6: And I do think that that’s also something that I think this film is probably getting out a little bit, too. Is this kind of like, I guess, late 2000s masculinity crisis of this man and these men who work in these industries? And it’s like everybody keeps asking Michael Clayton, who are you, you know, who are frequently throughout the film? And you can tell there’s this idea that, you know, nothing they do matters, that at the end of the day, this thing is just going to be sold to this other thing. And I think that is what fundamentally the film is also trying to get it. And I do think this film is very much about men.
S3: And it’s about like middle aged man with like one divorce behind them, who halfway up a company making perfectly good money but with no real future, like the the CV of Michael Clayton, where he starts a working working for the I think it’s a the state.
S1: It’s the Queens D.A., the Queens D.A.. There you go, ADA in Queens.
S3: So he’s prosecuting people in and out of borough. And then he moves into private practice where presumably he makes a lot more money, but he comes out this Nesha himself is basically being like the cop whisperer and the guy who can get things done. And as you say, he says he’s a janitor. He’s a very well paid janitor.
S7: But it’s clear that he doesn’t have what you might consider to be like a career trajectory. And everyone’s like, don’t even think about going back to being a lawyer because that’s just not going to work out for you. And so he has he sees no future for his life.
S3: And that sort of white collar that behind this thing is a large part of this movie, because there’s clearly an implication that that is what drives Tom Wilkinson over the edge into madness as well.
S7: Like, I’ve been doing nothing but this guy for about six years and I’ve lost my soul in doing so. I have become Shiva God of death.
S1: He’s telling a story about how already black comes to celebrate when they hit 30000 billable hours and then they go out hollering. And yes, it’s a very male movie and it’s very much about sort of that midlife crisis. I mean, and I don’t want to get on the couch here, but those kind of movies always, always get me. So it may it most certainly is one of the reasons I really respond to this film. I’m letting it all hang out here in the Slate Money Movies podcast.
S3: So is it a good movie? I mean, we agree that it has plot holes. I think it is fine to have plot holes, like it’s perfectly OK to have a good movie. But also I think the dialogue sparkles. I think the performances are excellent. George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack, they all just turn in really good performances and in terms of just everything else, the cinematography, the direction, that kind of stuff, it seems good, right?
S1: I well, I’ve already said I love it. I think it’s exceptional. I think it’s interesting to the guy who made it, Tony Gilroy wrote and directed it. It’s his first movie he ever directed. He’d been a long time screenwriter, very successful. And he’s only made a handful of other movies. They’re not nearly as good.
S3: And now he’s like doing know, Marvel and Star Wars stuff as he reached that midlife level where he’s not really going to go anywhere and he’s just got.
S1: No, no, he’s but he’s been there. But it’s clearly the movie he wanted to make for a long time. I don’t think that justifies it being good, but I think it’s the thing he has poured a ton of energy into. I think the cinematography and direction are great. Like, they’re just great subtle shots. The shot that I think the last hero shot where Michael Clayton walks away and they’re tracking him going through that top floor of the Hilton is great. And there’s little flourishes like you see cops coming toward him. You think, oh, he’s going to get in trouble. Don Jeffries is going to have him thrown out. But actually, the cops are there to get Don Jeffries. I just think every little element of it is really thought through and clever. And I find it to be like a really riveting movie that, you know, has violence and intrigue in it. But it’s fundamentally about a law firm merger and a class action lawsuit.
S7: It does make class action lawsuits interesting and watchable and gripping, which is no mean feat.
S1: Yeah. And, you know, it may be a deeply flawed movie in terms of it appeals to middle aged dudes like myself and a few other people. But we’ll see.
S3: And it has to be that changed your mind to know.
S6: I just feel like I’m being mean. Fair enough. No, I mean, look, it may not mean not made at all. No. I mean, like, I’ll be perfectly honest, this is not my type of film. There’s a reason that I the first time I saw this film was two days ago. These are the types of films that when I watch them, I always kind of feel like I kind of know what’s going to happen. It’s just it wasn’t made for me and there wasn’t a lot that I really like here. But I understand that you did and that that’s no problem with that.
S3: But OK, so putting aside whether you like to, do you think it’s a good movie or do you think it’s a bad movie?
S6: I honestly don’t think it’s a good movie. And I’m sorry. I feel like I’m just like laying out here. But I thought that a lot of the cinematography was the type of stuff you see in every one of those films like that, like they’re all shot exactly the same way. And there was also this period in like the 2000s. But they love to do this like this is what happened before. And then later we’ll show you what why all these things mattered so you can feel smart. That’s something they do. I thought the dialogue was really overdone most of the time. But like Cheeba Goddess of death stuff, I was like, come on. Like, I didn’t love that. I thought most of the performances, honestly, outside of Tilda Swinton were so just like overdone. I get like, you know, George Clooney is doing his George Clooney thing, and that’s fine. He’s good at doing that. But I didn’t particularly like that. I thought this soundtrack was pretty standard. This does seem to me like the type of film that is made to try to win an Oscar. It was nominated for a lot of Oscars. But if I might tell us one one, one. Right. She didn’t she didn’t want Rice.
S1: What about the fact that they had try to make George Clooney slightly more sympathetic by, like, adding like an extra five pounds, a little bit of like a little bit of like shadow warriors? I didn’t say that. Yeah, I love it. I love that he’s playing. He’s supposed to be an everyman sort of schlump, but he’s George Clooney. That’s great.
S3: Yeah, it’s very it’s very hard for George Clooney to to do schlump. Maybe that was it. Maybe it was miscast. Maybe they could have gotten actual maybe they could have got, like, Paul Giamatti to do it.
S6: You know, I actually do think it probably would have been a better film if they had had a much more everyman character maybe.
S3: Peter, what do you think? How do you think this would have played if Paul Giamatti had played Michael Clayton?
S1: I would have also eaten that up because, again, I’m all for middle aged white guys in distress. But no, I think it’s got to have some kind of some kind of leading man here who you can get behind. And you could imagine a world where he is more successful and does have it more together. Or you could also imagine him being the hard headed guy who’s making it difficult for himself. And there were paths for him to take that he chose not to. And it’s he’s brought this on himself.
S6: I guess, actually, as you say, that I would say the one thing that this film also does is this idea that appearances aren’t what they appear to be in the early scenes. You’re looking at this building. It looks very silent. It’s at night. And then all of a sudden you see all this like chaos that’s happening underneath it. And again, the Tilda Swinton character is very mannered and artificial. And similarly, they frequently say with the George Clooney character, you’re like, you don’t have seventy five thousand dollars. Like he’s driving this really nice car. He’s George Clooney. So I guess I could see maybe that was kind of what they were trying to get at.
S3: Yeah. I can’t imagine what possessed them to cast Tilda Swinton as someone mad and artificial. So, you know, I when I first saw the movie, which was also in the theater in Manhattan, I couldn’t get over the whole, you know, the basic points about like discovery and stuff.
S10: I could.
S3: I couldn’t understand why you didn’t make any sense, and now that I realized that it wasn’t actually about like legal discovery and it was actually about middle aged ennui and white collar jobs, I’m like it probably does a slightly better job of doing that. And I guess I’m slightly more susceptible to the poetry of Michael Clayton inadvertently saving his own life by going up to whispering to a horse.
S1: We didn’t even get to the horses. Yes, you can. Why aren’t they into pens? It’s very.
S6: Why are they just running around? You know, I.
S1: I have seen horses when I drive around occasionally, not in a pen. But yes, it was lucky that he stopped and looked at the horses instead of getting car bombed. You know, again, like, I love all the 70s conspiracy movies that this is clearly a love letter, too, including like Three Days of the Condor, which Cindy Pollack directed, and and a bunch of those movies. And those are all, you know, full of flaws. The idea is you’re supposed to still you know, and if you watch a recently watched Three Days of the Condor and the way Robert Redford treats it, Faye Dunaway, whoever the female is, are terribly in that, you know, they’re all it’s Warren Beatty and the Parallax. You know, there’s all these beautiful men who are being put upon by the system and trying to find their way out. And they often don’t make it out. And this is one of those movies, and I like all those movies.
S3: And the other thing that all of those movies have in common is they have very long, seemingly entirely gratuitous shots of our hero driving down the road in a nice car. On his own, and you see it in you know, it starts in the maybe it starts in the 60s, but then it just goes all the way through and it seems to be compulsory. And I I know that film directors put a lot of effort into really crafting their shots of the hero driving down the road in a car. And it’s the one thing I’ve only just realized this, which is like this trope that people care about. And I always treated those scenes just like I was just like that’s my opportunity to get up and make a cup of tea. You know, it’s like there’s nothing happening here. Why am I even watching this? But the more I realize how sort of central these things are to the movie, I was just reading this thing about how in the Quentin Tarantino movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like half of the budget went on the scene of Brad Pitt driving down the road in a car. And I’m like, these are clearly important. So I think I’m just going to end since you’re such a connoisseur of these movies by asking you to explain to me what is the function of the driving down the road in a car scene?
S1: Well, I think if you’re Quentin Tarantino, that is the whole movie. And I probably did get up at that point and use the bathroom. The car in this case is just a symbol of his success. And as Anna pointed out, it’s also shows you how shallow that success is. It’s not his car. It’s a leased car that the company owns. He doesn’t own his nice car and it’s also tries to kill him at one point. So there wouldn’t be like a garment in this car if this was made today, but I’d have to figure out some other way to blow him up. I think it’s that simple. Plus good looking people and good looking cars.
S3: Did they try to blow him up through the inbuilt GPS? Was that the the mechanism?
S1: Yes. That’s why it doesn’t work in any movie. Yeah. These he’s slapping the navigation system because it’s not working because the guy didn’t have time to fully install it.
S6: And one of the things I will say, especially in this film, like he’s always driving in this film even more than in some of those other films, I think like and I don’t know if I’m supposed to be this sense of like he doesn’t really have a home or he doesn’t know who he is, though he’s constantly on the move or something. But it kind of jumped out at me maybe a little bit, because this is supposed to be a you know, as we said, in a lot of ways, it is a good New York movie in the picture. But like he tries, he’s always driving himself in a car. Yes, he’s driving his kid around the meat-packing.
S1: There’s not shots of him struggling to to parallel park or picking up tickets that he gets over and over from double parking.
S3: And Tribecca, he’s driving down, I think it’s Greenwich Street or something. And he sees Don Wilkinson like walking down the street. He just parks with this magic parking spot, just appears and he parks and runs down to to grab his former colleagues, this child full of baggage to get that.
S6: I actually like the arm bullet begats I found like with an oddly interesting touch.
S3: I mean, once you’ve bought one bag, you know, when you’re that rich, he was so successful, he’s probably making like a million bucks on the other. Can afford a lot of bread. The guy’s got a lot of dough.
S1: Ha, very good. It was a long walk to get to there to get there in the end.
S3: Peter Kafka, thank you for coming on Slate money to talk about this movie, which you love and you’re going to continue to watch on a regular basis for the rest of your life.
S1: This movie. You know, I was shocked that I actually had to pay to rent this movie because it is always normally on Netflix or Amazon or HBO. And you managed to schedule this in some sort of weird interregnum where I had to pay for it. But but yeah, I probably watch it at least once a year because it’s always streaming somewhere.
S3: And I apologize for inflicting Michael Clayton on, you know.
S2: No, thank you for listening to money. It goes to the movies. We will be back next week with nine to five and Louis.