Clooney's performance is the story here.
Writer/Director Tom Gilroy knows just how to keep us on edge in “Michael
Clayton.” He creates suspense quickly, sustains it, and peppers the movie with a
series of shocks. One thing is clear though: we’re rooting for George Clooney.
Clooney’s Michael Clayton is the center of the entire ruckus. Michael is what we used to know as a minister-without-portfolio. He works for a prominent law firm that employs 600 people to do the bidding of the top layer. He is known by the firm as a “fixer,” the guy who is available around the clock to clean up other people’s messes. But he’s something else: he’s also a listener. Instead of lecturing his clients, he listens to them.
One of Michael’s current assignments is to watch over senior partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a principled man who suffers from manic depression. Arthur has spent the last six years defending U/North, a noted manufacturer of, among other things, a toxic weed killer that has killed in addition to weeds, 468 people.
When Arthur goes off his meds, he sees the awful truth of his life and his firm. “We are all janitors,” he tells Michael. I am defending a maker of a product that is “a chain of carcinogenic molecules.” When Arthur flips out in a conference at U/North and rails against corruption, Michael, the fixer, flies to the rescue yet again.
As Michael’s patience thins, firm boss Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack repeatedly reassures him that just because he is not a partner, not highly paid, not high profile, he is still beyond measurable value. He is the ultimate janitor. Jumping on private company jets at will to clean up this mess or that, he leads a privileged but gritty life. Already, at 48, Michael has a dark side. As an addicted gambler, he spends part of his life in a dark, sordid basement room where the tempted lose all to the tempters – in Michael’s case, $80,000.
As Chief Counsel and public face of U/North, Tilda Swinton creates an especially nasty villain in Karen Crowder, corporate shill. Gripped by conscience for only a few seconds, she takes every new step required to protect her company. An empty vessel whose job is her life, she may not be used to this, but she turns bad fast. The peripheral characters are dwarfed by the strong storyline. It’s too much to ask us to follow the relatives.
The significance of this good thriller? None, really. Just a reminder that a lot of rich, capable professionals work hard to cover up for rich, corrupt individuals and corporations in a culture where you are considered a doofus if you wish it were otherwise. George Clooney gives a restrained, sophisticated performance as a man who has built himself an empty tower of a life and is more adept at cleaning up after others than after himself. Clooney’s performance is the story here. He’s really good.
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