Director/Writer: Tony Gilroy
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
Studio/Running Time: Warner Bros., 119 mins.
They appeared one by one in a parade across cable news. Old white guys in expensive suits, stepping out of courtrooms with stony faces, holding up their hands to shield their faces from press photographers. Bernie Ebbers, Dennis Kozlowski, John Rigas, Ken Lay... they all blurred together to the point where they were practically indistinguishable, just faceless tyrants marching off to the guillotine.
Screenwriter extraordinaire Tony Gilroy began work on the script for Michael Clayton well before this wave of indictments rocked big business. But those high-profile scandals have – perhaps serendipitously – added a fresh layer of relevance to Gilroy’s directorial debut. They also make the central thesis of his story all the more discomforting to accept: that even those callous corporate masterminds and their big-shot lawyers have conflicts of conscience, too.
Gilroy introduces his three leads in short order, each one a pawn in a $3 billion class-action lawsuit against fictional agrochemical giant U/North. From the film’s onset, there’s little doubt that U/North was in the wrong, but it’s nonetheless up to this trio to cover the corporation’s mistakes. Attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the architect of the U/North defense, but his growing horror and disgust with his life’s work quickly reduces him to a manic-depressive wreck. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), U/North’s lead counsel, is charged with minimizing the civil suit’s damage to her employer. In contrast to Edens, her reaction to her position is one of overwhelming internalized anxiety, masked by her carefully constructed appearance and well-rehearsed press responses.
Then there’s Michael Clayton himself, played with world-weary resolve by George Clooney. He’s a paralegal “fixer,” the kind of fellow who makes his client’s problems disappear quickly and cleanly. When his friend Edens suffers a total meltdown in a deposition hearing, Clayton is brought in to work his magic. But with many of his own personal problems lingering unresolved, Clayton must face a series of moral dilemmas in which his corporate instinct for self-preservation collides with his sense of humanity.
Gilroy maintains a fine balance as he portrays the lives of these three lonely souls while keeping his intricately crafted plot in constant motion. Blending elements of crime drama, paralegal thriller, and a dash of the espionage action he perfected while working on the Bourne trilogy, Gilroy delivers a script that reflects his rare ability to pose complex moral questions while simultaneously drawing his audience deeper and deeper into the action. Shot against the cold, hive-like palaces of Manhattan’s Corporate Row, Michael Clayton deftly portrays the bewilderment of the people who find themselves trapped within the corporate culture. The public may only see the monolithic front of big business, but as Gilroy’s film illustrates, it’s the small, seemingly well-reasoned actions of these subordinates that ultimately drive their companies to good or evil. It’s scary to think that the mega-conglomerates that dominate America’s economy are heartless machines, but even scarier to imagine that they just might be human after all.