Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Michael Clayton

It's Oscar season, and every year, when the nominees are announced, I attempt to catch up on my viewing and try to see at least all of the Best Picture nominees. This year, the five nominees are
No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Atonement and Michael Clayton. Of these five films, I have seen three. I have yet to see There Will Be Blood and Atonement, however, even before the nominations I had wanted to see both. Paul Thomas Anderson is on my list of "will see no matter what the subject or critical opinion". But I didn't see that film yet.

Spoilers for the entire film of
Michael Clayton, so beware.

As the title of this blog post tells you, I saw
Michael Clayton. This film is written and directed by Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the Bourne movies among other things (The Bourne movies being, in order of release: good, great(!), and AWESOME). Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack, this movie is about Michael Clayton, a fixer for a huge lawfirm. Wilkinson plays an attorney, the head litigator for U-North, a huge multinational corporation that has knowingly done some bad environmental things and are being sued for billions by families of victims. Wilkinson's character, Arthur Edens, goes crazy, gets nude, and becomes a whistleblower against U-North. Somehow he's gotten his hands on some sensitive documents. It's up to Michael Clayton to clean this mess because everything is on the line.

This is a movie about people pushed into the corner, and the things they will do when put there. Clayton isn't a badass walking around fixing problems like the Wolf. He's got a mountain of debt, a kid from a ruined marriage, gambling problems, and he's been working at the firm for 17 years going nowhere. He's in a bad situation, and this Edens problem is just too much for him. It doesn't help that U-North has got Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) into the mess, and it's not like U-North puts human lives at the top of a pedestal or anything.

Clayton keeps getting pushed and pushed by various factors, some brought on by his own weaknesses, and he gets more and more desperate. He makes a deal with Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), partner at the firm, to cover his outrageous debt and stay with the firm for 3 more years. He's essentially selling himself out and Edens at the same time. The damning documents get buried for the moment.

There's a lot going on in Michael Clayton. He sees the weakness around him, as symbolized by a ranting raving rich guy who fled the scene of a hit-and-run, as symbolized by his alcoholic thieving brother, by his own failed restaurant. Clayton is in a deep rut and can't seem to get out. By taking the deal with Bach, he's doomed himself to more of the same. He sees himself as a janitor, a janitor for a firm that helps keep afloat an evil company that knowingly spread cancer-causing chemicals. He begins to think that Edens, who has a history of mental problems and is clearly not well, might be right about the whole thing. Not just about the rank stench of U-North, but about themselves as well. Clayton begins to see that he ain't a good guy.

He makes his decision to keep going when his brother tries to talk to him. Clayton avoids his brother and gets into the car with Clayton's son, Henry. He tells Henry not to worry, that Henry is strong and he certainly didn't get it from Clayton.

There's a theme of redemption near the end. While Clayton's more practical problems haven't been solved, he's saved at least a bit of his soul. He uses the documents from U-North and some incriminating confession from Crowder to put them away and do what's "right". Clayton knows that it doesn't make up for all that he's done, but maybe it's a start.

I really liked this movie. Gilroy has a great ear for interesting yet believable dialogue. It's not nearly as poetic as Mamet, but it's not bland and dreary like a mid-Nineties legal thriller starring John Travolta or Tom Cruise (no I don't mean
For A Few Good Men). The cast is superb as one would expect. Clooney is nominated for Best Actor, and it might be deserved. I love how Clooney balances the weariness and the angst on Clayton's face while still making him not po-faced. As usual, Pollack reminds that it's almost criminal that he's not in front of the camera as much as he should be. Swinton is a miracle, taking what could be a one-note character (archetypal business-bitch) and making her more rounded and believable. There's a great scene in which Crowder practices for a tv interview and tries her speeches over and over again. Swinton sells the scene so well.

Now, since it's a Best Picture nominee, I have the sort-of-kind-of-not-really distasteful task of comparing it to the other nominees that I have seen. First of all, this movie is way more complex and thematically richer than
Juno. That's not to say it's more entertaining, because really, Juno gets the prize there. It's much more emotionally satisfying than Michael Clayton. But this is all moot considering that they're up against the behemoth of perfection, No Country For Old Men. As an unabashed fan of both the Coens and McCarthy, I might be a little biased. But that film is a true return to form for the Coens after the kinda disappointing Ladykillers, terrific gospel notwithstanding. So far, no film from 2007 has supplanted No Country For Old Men as my favourite film of the year, and I have seen a lot of great movies, and Michael Clayton numbers among them.

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