With impeccable timing, ‘Michael Clayton’ arrived just in time for the Academy Awards. It was nominated for seven Oscars, and to be fair, it’s not hard to see why.
Director (and writer) Tony Gilroy keeps the action low but the tension high in this well-paced legal thriller. Gilroy’s previous writing credits include the ‘Bourne’ series and ‘Devil’s Advocate’, but with ‘Michael Clayton’ he gets to assume the director’s chair and shape the movie to his liking.
George Clooney gives a strong performance in the title role, playing a corporate lawyer increasingly torn between loyalty to his friend and colleague (Arthur Eden, played by Tom Wilkinson) and to his employers. Things are further complicated by Clayton’s fractured personal life – seemingly de rigueur for male Hollywood protagonists these days. Although he didn’t win this time around, if Clooney keeps putting in these performances (and stays clear of more ‘Oceans’ movies) he’s likely to land an Oscar sooner or later, and although the role of Michael Clayton isn’t as meaty as say, Bob Barnes in 2005’s ‘Syriana’, there’s still plenty for him to work with.
The film is set mainly in New York City, although we get to see completely different side of the city to that we see in American Gangster, for example. Here, the villains are – for the most part – tucked away in their skyscraper offices, part of the sinister system so lucidly described by Wilkinson’s Arthur in the film’s fabulous opening monologue.
Perhaps the best word to describe the movie is ‘understated’. There are no actors chewing the scenery here. Instead, there are solid performances throughout the cast. Particular credit goes to Tom Wilkinson as Arthur and the excellent Sydney Pollack as Clayton’s sympathetic boss. Tilda Swinton does a fine job of portraying senior lawyer Karen Crowder, struggling to maintain a cool façade despite the pressures upon her.
With George Clooney and his ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ pal Steven Soderbergh both credited as Executive Producers, perhaps it’s no surprise that ‘Michael Clayton’ looks slick. Expensive yes, but not flashy – in keeping with the tone of the movie. Similarly, the subtle soundtrack (a chord-heavy piano score) suits the mood well. Again, it’s slick.
Gilroy touches on some interesting themes. We’re reminded that the role of the lawyer is to represent their client – not necessarily see that justice is done. But at what cost, and where to draw the line?
There are layers here too, as Gilroy lightly plays with a fantasy sub plot. However, Gilroy keeps the main story within the realms of possibility. In a post-Bhopal world – where ‘cost-benefit analysis’ acts as corporate doublespeak for profits over human life – is the film’s U-North any different from Union Carbide?
Similar ground has been covered before – most recently in Michael Mann’s ‘The Insider’ (1998) but Gilroy manages to keep things fresh while simultaneously harking back to some of the great American thrillers of the 1970s. And of course, they picked up a few Oscars too…
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