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Cinemalphabet: M is for Michael Clayton (2007)

February 13, 2011

Michael Clayton didn’t initially blip for me upon its release. Maybe it’s my aversion to Oscarbait or perhaps I wasn’t ready to be charmed by the stylish, moody legal thriller. When finally settled in to watch the film I was blown away by its taut storytelling and interest in the minutiae of its characters’ lives.

Here in its entirety is Arthur Edens’ stunning opening monologue of the film:

    Michael. Dear Michael. Of course it’s you, who else could they send, who else could be trusted? I… I know it’s a long way and you’re ready to go to work… all I’m saying is just wait, just… just wait and please just hear me out because this is not an episode, relapse, fuck-up, it’s… I’m begging you Michael. I’m begging you. Try to make believe this is not just madness because this is not just madness. Two weeks ago I came out of the building ok, I’m running across 6th avenue there’s a car waiting, I’ve got exactly 38 minutes to get to the airport and I’m dictating. There’s this panicked associate sprinting along beside me, scribbling in a notepad, and suddenly she starts screaming, and I realize we’re standing in the middle of the street, the light’s changed, there’s this wall of traffic, serious traffic speeding towards us, and I… I freeze, I can’t move, and I’m suddenly consumed with the overwhelming sensation that I’m covered in some sort of film. It’s in my hair, my face… it’s like a glaze… a coating, and… at first I thought, oh my god, I know what this is, this is some sort of amniotic – embryonic – fluid. I’m drenched in afterbirth, I’ve breached the chrysalis, I’ve been reborn. But then the traffic, the stampede, the cars, the trucks, the horns, the screaming and I’m thinking no-no-no, reset, this is not rebirth, this is some kind of giddy illusion of renewal that happens in the final moment before death. And then I realize no-no-no, this is completely wrong because I look back at the building and I had the most stunning moment of clarity. I… I… I realized Michael, that I had emerged not from the doors of Kenner, Bach & Leeden, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism who’s sole function is to excrete the… the… the poison, the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other, larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity. And that I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life. The stench of it and the sting of it would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undue. And you know what I did? I took a deep cleansing breath and I put that notion aside. I tabled it. I said to myself as clear as this may be, as potent a feeling as this is, as true a thing as I believe I witnessed today, it must wait. It must stand the test of time, and Michael, the time is now.

Chief among my fascination was the characterization of Arthur Edens (played with tenderness and nuance by Tom Wilkinson). Mental illness and addiction examined through the lens of a caretaker, which seeks neither to deify the caregiver or denigrate those in need of care are rare treasures. But the brilliance of Michael Clayton is how it examines these issues via the titular’s character job as firm’s “fixer”. It’s a refreshing approach and one that keeps the story grounded in reality, while also remaining faithful to its larger mandate of shining a spotlight on high stakes corporate legal wrangling – in this case a sizable class action lawsuit.

Michael Clayton is a world weary and conflicted lawyer – not that the big screen has ever lacked for such a character – but George Clooney plays him straight and earnest. Absent are some of the charming mannerisms one comes to expect from a Clooney performance and it is replaced with careful, deliberate craft choices that ought to have earned him an Oscar. Clooney’s Clayton is a sad, struggling caretaker whose ability to both manage crisis and exist in a near constant state of damage control is starting to take its toll on him. While it has not affected his work performance it has caused him to question what exactly is the value of said work.

For Clayton, this crisis of conscience, comes at an inopportune time as his dear friend Arthur becomes increasingly despondent over his involvement – he is lead defense counsel – in a class action suit against a large corporation responsible for unspeakable acts of environmental contamination that has devastated a small, rural community. As Arthur’s despondency grows, his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Under normal circumstances, most films would opt to either traffic in harmful mental illness tropes or attempt to frame mental illness as a sort of superpower that renders Arthur impervious to the chaos in his life and others ignorant of it. Instead, Michael Clayton tackles it head on in a series of gripping scenes between Arthur and Clayton, which do an amazing job of illustrating the realities of folks dealing with their mental illness and what impact class, race and gender have on their ability to retain agency. As Arthur’s mental health becomes inconvenient for both his client (the big mean corporation. I see you, Ken Howard!) and his firm there are attempts to cart him off to the booby hatch. But Arthur is not depicted as a victim.

When Marty (played gloriously by the late Sydney Pollack, more on his character in a bit) suggest that Clayton “do something” to get Arthur in line he receives pushback from Clayton who reminds Marty that involuntary commitment is not going to happen when the patient in question just happens to be firm’s expert on – wait for it – involuntary commitment. This framing of Arthur is utterly brilliant and is also keeping with a reality experienced by many who have mental illness. Many of us – with or without legal training – have had to become our own advocates while navigating the system, which means we often know as much about our rights as patients as anyone who seeks to take those rights from us. It was also wonderful to see Clayton be the kind of advocate to Arthur that many of us wish we had! Clayton can be both tough and pragmatic.

When Clayton fears that Arthur’s suspicions about the class action suit are being filtered by his mental illness, thus causing Arthur to titrate off his medication, Clayton responds with a loving, but firm, “If this is the truth the pills won’t change that.” It’s a sharp, scene which gives complex treatment of mental illness devoid of any moralizing from either side. More importantly, once Clayton begins to see what Arthur sees he is quick to support his friend as he seeks to expose the evil doing. Even Pollack’s Marty is portrayed as sympathetic to Arthur’s mental illness without being patronizing or dismissive. Marty might talk a good, blustery game – Pollack is skillful at those kinds of characters – but in the end he values and cares deeply for Arthur. The lack of romanticizing or demonizing mental illness is to be commended.

What's up, White Shadow???

As far as other characters go, nobody in the film hits a sour note. In addition to Clooney and Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton (in her Oscar winning role) and Sydney Pollack give delicious performances as Karen Crowder and Marty Bach respectively. Swinton’s Crowder is vulnerable, ambitious and nasty as hell. The methodical way she preps for big meetings and press conferences is reminiscent of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, but not played for laughs. There is an interesting analysis of female power in the corporate world, which Michael Clayton tries admirable to explore.

Karen Crowder is unlike any female character I’ve encountered in a legal thriller. She lacks the bitter confidence that would be the default setting of most characters traveling a similar path, yet her naivety is never conflated for ignorance or ineptitude. And when push comes to shove – whether the audience likes it or not – Crowder makes the uncomfortable and ugly choices that are expected of her with little in the way of second guessing and barely any remorse. Like male characters who have made identical choices in other films, Crowder’s remorse is only evident because eventually her choices catch up to her. It’s clear that most likely if she managed to get away with her acts of treachery she wouldn’t give them a moment’s notice. And Tilda Swinton, whom I normally don’t find particularly compelling, rocked the hell out of her role and deserved her Oscar. In fact she deserves to be a leading lady because the camera loves her face and she can embody a character with gestures the way Blanchett can embody a character with her command of accents.

Sydney Pollack is not playing a character unfamiliar to us and somehow that’s one of the joys of watching him. Marty Bach delivers one of my favorite lines of the film when confronted by an angry and frustrated Clayton, “15 years and I still gotta tell you how we pay the rent around here!” Contained in that line everything the audience needs to know about Marty Bach. His pragmatic outlook is both comforting and a little sad. He’s been in the game too long and reaped too many rewards to eagerly do the right thing. However, like Clayton, when it matters, he does. Pollack has wonderful chemistry with Clooney and it’s such a shame they weren’t able to work together on more projects. One only images what films like The Interpreter could have been if Pollack had directed Clooney in the role instead of Penn.

It seems hard to believe this film actually does a have a gripping – albeit not mystery laden – legal conundrum at its heart, because so much screen time is devoted to drawing audiences into the world of Michael Clayton‘s richly drawn characters. Unlike a lot of legal thrillers whose charms diminish once the case has been resolved, and similar to The Rainmaker, Michael Clayton‘s biggest payoffs come not from the resolution of the legal battle, but the time the audience spends with its unforgettable characters.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. unscrambled permalink
    February 13, 2011 9:52 am

    You are making me reconsider my initial analysis of this film as Classic Clooney Middlebrow. I remember enjoying it a bunch (I mean, who isn’t going to enjoy Sydney Pollack and Tilda Swinton?), but perhaps it’s worth a rewatch. And really, all I can digest lately is middle or less brow, so why not?

  2. lucy permalink
    February 13, 2011 12:29 pm

    I’ve been avoiding this film as well, despite the rave reviews I see from commenters on amateur screenwriting sites, maybe because of them — who knows? At any rate, you’ve tipped the scales for me. It gets an add to my already overflowing netflix queue.

  3. February 15, 2011 10:19 am

    I’m not a huge Clooney fan but as he aged out of his “hottest man in America” persona he acquired a gravitas that makes him a wonderfully flawed hero in this film. The facts that Michael’s already an outsider (though working on the inside), that he cares for Arthur in more than a professional sense, and yes that people are trying to kill him all make his conversion a lot easier to believe than what I think is the more typical “Jerry Maguire” version.

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