“I am Shiva, the God of Death.”
Rated R. Released on DVD February 19th. Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy. Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton & Sydney Pollack.
As a law school student, I am intimately familiar with the decision that plagues many future lawyers — should I use my potentially awesome lawyering skills to help the world and work for the government or elsewhere in the public sector, or should I sell out and make a shitload of money with a corporate law firm? Luckily for me, I have a little more time before making that decision — unluckily, I have a ton of student loan debt that will probably sway that decision.
For George Clooney’s eponymous character in Michael Clayton, the decision was made long ago — not only is he a “fixer” for a large, faceless corporate New York City law firm, his is a particularly amoral line of work. He bends the rules and manipulates the law (as all good lawyers do) and essentially does the dirty, behind-the-scenes work to benefit super-rich clients — and he’s quite good at it.
The film begins with a long voiceover belonging to Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) a senior litigation partner with Clayton’s law firm in the midst of a massive crisis of conscience. The voiceover is jolting and memorable and starts the story off with a bang. Edens has had a meltdown during a deposition of a major lawsuit involving a big corporate client and Clayton is dispatched to take care of him and deal with the legal counsel of the client (Tilda Swinton). Along the way, Clayton, a former poker addict and owner of a failed restaurant, has his own moral crisis complicated by the financial woes that have tied him to the firm. As a law student, especially as one in New York, the corporate law capital of the country (if not the world), and at a school which is heavily corporate anyway, I cringe at the thought of being in his, or Edens’ situation. Michael Clayton is practically tailored to me as a cautionary tale, and should be mandatory viewing for law students.
Writer/Director Tony Gilroy (who scored Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director & Screenplay) has crafted a very well-made film — the script is tight and the narrative structure plays around with flashbacks just enough to shake things up a little. The direction is similarly efficient and it keeps the story, which is very dialogue-heavy, moving so the audience doesn’t get bored.
Clooney, Wilkinson and Swinton were all also nominated for Oscars, which should give an indication of how strong the acting is. Swinton is the standout here, with her tortured performance as a woman willing to sacrifice any sense of morality to save her career. Wilkinson is strong as well, but Clooney’s performance here has been overrated. He does a good job carrying the movie, but he’s essentially playing serious, angry George Clooney (as seen in Syriana and Three Kings, amongst others) and though there’s nothing wrong with that — everyone likes George Clooney — it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
The best comparison I can think of is that the movie is similar to the darker of John Grisham’s early novels (particularly, The Firm) — it’s an entertaining and well-done legal thriller but not too memorable. Michael Clayton is a good movie but ultimately a little cold and gray without any standout moments, but if you’re in law school, you should probably see it.