MICHAEL CLAYTON Directed by Tony Gilroy. Starring George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack, Michael O’Keefe, Ken Howard, Denis O’Hare 15A cert, gen release, 120 min
GEORGE Clooney portrays the title character as a man on the edge, his face as ashen as his hair. Michael Clayton has been with a high-powered Manhattan law firm for 15 years but has not been made a partner despite his diligent service as a fixer taking care of the dirty work for the firm’s wealthy clients. Clayton’s marriage has broken up, his venture into the restaurant business has been a costly failure, and as his debts accumulate, he succumbs again to his gambling addiction.
Flashbacks reveal the turbulent events of the previous four days in Clayton’s life. The firm’s leading trial attorney, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), is defending agri-chemical company U/North in a multibillion-dollar class action suit. Clayton is put on the case when Edens cracks, stripping naked during a deposition hearing.
Meanwhile, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the firm’s co-founder, is dodging speculation about a possible merger. And Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the general counsel at U/North, is determined to achieve a speedy solution to the lawsuit that will be economically acceptable to the company.
Michael Clayton marks the directing debut of Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter of the recent Bourne trilogy and the misfired 1997 legal drama, The Devil’s Advocate, in which the head of a law firm proves to be the devil incarnate.
Gilroy cites a long-running General Motors lawsuit, which began in the 1970s and cost that company close on ¤5 billion, as his inspiration for U/North strand of his screenplay.
In the creation of his four principal characters and the conflict between them, Gilroy’s screenplay recalls Network, Sidney Lumet’s scathing 1977 satire on the television industry. Network also featured a seasoned practitioner faced with a crisis of conscience, a glacially ruthless and ambitious female executive, a company boss who preaches the values of corporate power, and a veteran who is a master of his craft, gets mad as hell and can’t take it anymore.
Both movies expose and confront worlds without principles or ethics and where just about everyone and everything has a price. However, Paddy Chayevsky’s acerbic script for Network was more clearly focused than Gilroy’s scenario, which is unwisely cluttered with largely superfluous subplots regarding Clayton’s family complications. And it pivots on a coincidence that is quite remarkably convenient.
Michael Clayton remains engrossing, fuelled by several well-staged set-pieces and by the driven, immersed performances. Swinton is outstanding, most memorably in a cleverly edited sequence that cuts between Karen’s nervous rehearsal of an important boardroom speech and her implacably cool presentation as she delivers it.
A case of conscience: Clooney and Wilkinson in Michael Clayton