The last time George Clooney was a lawyer was in the ill-received romantic-comedy from the Coens, Intolerable Cruelty. As in Syriana, Clooney’s eponymous Michael Clayton is another shady character. He is the “fixer” for prestigious law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. He is quietly feared by lawyers and cops. He is a go to guy when the normal channels of negotiation and the rule of law is not ideal and/or expedient. Sans beard and belly of Stephen Gaghan’s oil epic, he cuts a glamorous but slightly hunched figure as if stooped by apathy.
The opening is bold and minimalist. Tom Wilkinson’s American drawl over tracking shots of an empty law firm in the middle of the night has writer-director Tony Gilroy’s fingerprints all over it. Evidenced in this monologue and from his scripting of The Bourne saga, his ability to create tension and excitement from words and their rhythm is remarkable. As a director he has made an assured debut, he captures the elegance and affluence of corporate law. There are multiple threads that threaten to unravel in Clayton’s life: the bar he started with his unreliable brother as a nest egg has failed, leaving him heavily in debt; he is a recovering gambling addict; the law firm he works for looks to be imminently merging with a London player, conceivably threatening his autonomy or even position; a major client is involved in a hit-and-run; and his mentor, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), has seemingly had a nervous breakdown that threatens the firm’s biggest case — a class action against agrichemical corporation U/North. This enigmatic fixer Clayton with his plush Manhattan corner office has much to resolve — or at least patch up.
Michael Clayton has the feel of Steve Zaillian’s A Civil Action and Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, but adds slickness in place of underpinning in alleged fact. There are the office machinations and in the balance huge sums, though there is also the added pressure of human life at stake. There are sporadic punctuations of violence that are shocking in their announcement and their swift clinical presentation. While giving another dimension to what is threatened, it simultaneously potentially pushes the film away from reality; though if the likes of Michael Mann’s The Insider are to be believed corporations will go far beyond the pale. Clooney is very good at doing pensive (Solaris, ER, From Dusk Till Dawn) or his Clark Gable gent (Danny Ocean, Out of Sight, The Good German), but it would be nice to see some more range. He is meant to be this “special counsel” but it is not demonstrated; his reputation is through the eyes of others. It would have been perhaps more satisfying to see a glimpse of where his value comes from. With ambitious themes of conscience, responsibility, wasted lives, unchecked power and greed, Michael Clayton is almost a very good film, but there is cloying sense of unbelievability and the ending lets the film down. It feels too Hollywood.
EXTRAS ** Not much to get excited about, really — just a feature commentary with director Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy, plus three deleted scenes and trailers for the films Be Kind Rewind, Jumper and Valkyrie.