Michael Clayton tells a story of imperfect characters caught a constant struggle to define their moral compass in the high-powered world of law.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) plays a “fixer” at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. If there is dire problem, Clayton is often the last line of defense. Clayton, however, deadpans when he’s referred to as a miracle worker. Instead, he prefers the term “janitor.” Whether it’s a high-profile client who needs to cover up a hit-and-run or a lead partner who has run amok, Clayton has found a niche in telling people what they don’t want to hear, and despises every minute of it.
Perhaps that’s because his own personal life is a mess. He’s divorced and has trouble connecting with his own child, who he has scattered visitation rights with. He’s also neck-deep in debt due to a failed restaurant venture and because of his penchant for losing money at the poker tables.
His professional life is also in shambles when fellow-fixer Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) attempts to sink his own clients (U/North) in a class action suit by disseminating damning evidence across enemy lines. Clayton’s task now is to stop Arthur, or he will be left out in the cold with his debt. Meanwhile, U/North’s in-house counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) stops at nothing to stop Arthur.
Crowder, Clayton and Arthur are supposedly playing on the same team, but the line is quickly blurred because of the choices between right and wrong. On the one end, Arthur attempts to make amends with the plaintiffs on the other side of the class-action suit. They are the victims and Arthur, U/North and Kenner is on the wrong side. Then there is Crowder, who has long since turned a blind eye to U/North’s indiscretions. She does this, not because she is an evil character bent on destroying all who get in her way, but because she is a high-paid litigator, and when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line, there are certain decisions that will always seem more appealing than others.
In the middle is Clayton, who must make the decision between his own financial security, and the thousands of lives that are in jeopardy. Clayton has no easy answers because this is not a movie of black-and-white questions. His imperfection is what makes his character believable. While you may not be confronted with a decision like Clayton’s on a regular basis, you can certainly empathize with either direction he chooses to go.
A viewer who takes this movie casually will quickly get lost in the plot. Screenwriter Tony Gilroy gives us the conclusion first, and then the storyline follows. It isn’t until you’re 90 percent of the way through the movie when all of the storylines come together. Michael Clayton asks viewers to pay close attention, but then rewards them handsomely at the resolution.
Viewers are also treated to brilliant acting all around. Wilkinson’s character may appear to be crazy, but there’s also a good chance he’s just using that as a facade. There’s a telling exchange between Arthur and Clayton toward the conclusion that let’s you know that Arthur may be insane, or insanely brilliant.
Clooney drops the Danny Oceans smugness in favor of a man who’s barely hanging on. Clayton may be described as a miracle worker, but we’re never shown why he earns that reputation. He is just a man who says what he sees, and offers little else. Perhaps in a multi-million dollar world, that’s exactly what is called for.
The best performance goes to Swinton, whose character embodies what would’ve happened if Clayton made a different set of choices. She may be a gunner, but underneath her confident, put-together appearance, there is just as much turmoil as Clayton. Either way, she is in way over her head, and doesn’t realize the magnitude of her actions.
What makes Michael Clayton work is that the movie is firmly entrenched in reality. Crooked corporations make morally questionable decisions everyday, and its employees are expected to follow. Most will; a small portion won’t. The choice of whether to go along is never easy, something that Michael Clayton brings out.