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October 16, 2007 > Michael Clayton - The Conflicted Fixer

Michael Clayton - The Conflicted Fixer

By Joe Samagond

"Michael Clayton" is a film that speaks to the way we live now. It's a story about ethics and their absence, a slow-to-boil cry for corporate decency in which Michael Clayton (George Clooney) raises the sword in the name of truth and justice but with soiled hands from years of "fixing" problems for his firm.

The suspicious Michael Clayton moves behind the scenes covering up modern corporate faults such as deception and greed. Attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) leads the defense team in a $3 billion class-action suit filed against U/North. The company is being sued by farmers because of a germ killer U/North used despite knowing it was hazardous to people's health. Pay a little attention to the details, though, because it is a story about the lawsuit without really being about the lawsuit, if that makes sense. "Michael Clayton" is also the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy ("The Bourne Identity" and sequels), and it's a writer's film.

Clayton is a legal fixer for corporate law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. His weight is felt when Edens' guilty conscience catapults him over the edge of sanity. Edens obtained documents proving U/North knew of the chemical's harmful effects, but buried the findings to continue turning profit. Now Edens wants to blow a few whistles, and the higher-ups and Kenner, Bach & Ledeen assign Clayton to ensure that doesn't happen.

This multi-layered character study requires audience patience as it constructs the tiers, but rewards us with surprising discoveries. Directorially, Gilroy shows us the sweat that paranoia can produce. His tightly paced film teeters along the proverbial razor's edge between doing what's moral and what is beneficial for the corporation. Clayton has been doing the latter for so long, he's not sure he remembers how to handle the former.

Clooney plays the character with the lived-in weariness of a man who knows he has gone as far as he's going to. He's divorced, a good father to his young son (Austin Williams), a good son to his ailing father, a prickly sibling to his brother the police detective (Sean Cullen) and his other brother, a cokehead loser (David Lansbury). With the latter he made the mistake of investing in a restaurant that has gone bust, leaving Michael holding the bag for $75,000 he doesn't have - due by end of the week. Clayton is going broke financially and morally.

There are a few obvious villains in "Michael Clayton," notably the chief counsel for U/North, Karen Crowder, played very well by Tilda Swinton. Her role is a bit clichˇd - brittle, sexless, friendless, and cheerless- but what makes her work is her unnerving banality, visible in the blank canvas of a face that looks untouched by gentleness or empathy. Sydney Pollack is excellent as Marty Bach, a firm partner and a man who has grown weary putting out fires. Wilkinson can work up a frenzy, but musters compassion for his emotionally scarred lawyer with a newfound zeal for truth. And Swinton, the opposite end of the spectrum, is as cold and clinical as the picture needs her to be. In one pivotal scene, Swinton can be seen rehearsing the lies she will give in an interview. Gilroy helps blur the line between fiction and fact by interspersing her practiced speech with the actual media cross-examination. It's one of those captivating tools Gilroy uses throughout his excellent film to wring deeper meaning out of what could have been a simple scene.

The energy sags a bit midway, but eventually Gilroy rolls his marbles to the center of the table, and you start appreciating what both Clayton and Crowder are up to. The latter tempers a corporate counsel's arrogance with deep fissures of insecurity; you're always aware of how naked Karen feels in this world of men she has chosen in her climb up the corporate ladder. Michael rarely shows his cards. "I'm not a miracle worker, I'm a janitor," he says, and as far as he's concerned, that's his real resume. Only in the very final frames of this slow, rich, rewarding film does he allow himself the one thing he has earned.

Ultimately, "Michael Clayton" is about the gap between predatory professionalism and the sins of real life - about how those sins can corrode the hardest business suit of armor.

"Michael Clayton" is rated R - Adult language, some violence.
Runtime: 119 minutes.

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