VIDEO: The trailer for Michael Clayton
“I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor.” That may be the first time but it won’t be the last that Michael Clayton (George Clooney) refers to himself as a cleaner-up of other people’s messes. This film from Tony Gilroy is that rarest of legal thrillers, a crackling entertainment that an adult audience won’t feel the slightest bit guilty about enjoying.
|Michael Clayton | Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy | with George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack | Warner Bros. | 119 Minutes|
Guilt crops up in other forms, however. Clayton has been toiling for 17 years at one of New York’s largest law firms, and he appears indispensable to the company’s inner circle. Yet from the outside –– where someone wonders why he isn’t a partner by now –– it’s impossible to say what it is he does. In short, he’s a “fixer,” expert at scrubbing off any dirt that might adhere to the firm’s deep-pocketed clientele.
The latest bit of untidiness, however, emerges from within. Arthur Evans (Tom Wilkinson), the firm’s senior litigator and one of Clayton’s oldest friends, has suffered a crisis of conscience, and the timing couldn’t be worse. A multi-billion-dollar class-action suit against U-North, his agrochemical-conglomerate client, is nearing a pre-trial settlement after a half-dozen years. Then a confluence of events leads to an unexpected meltdown: off his manic-depressive medication for more than a week, Evans stumbles across a top-secret memo, a smoking gun that leaves no doubt as to his client’s culpability in producing a product that’s left many farmers dead or dying. Like another cinematic lawyer named Arthur –– Al Pacino’s Arthur Kirkland in . . . And Justice for All –– Evans wants to make amends, though Kirkland never resorted to stripping naked during a deposition.
Clayton is dispatched to the Midwest to retrieve Evans from jail. The situation threatens more than just his client’s interests — there’s the potential adverse affect on the merger plans that are being drawn up by Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the firm’s lead partner. And yet it’s Clayton’s life that’s most in need of a thorough cleaning. A recovering gambling addict on the verge of a relapse, he bet and lost his “walkaway money” on a restaurant venture; now he owes $75,000 and has a week to come up with it. Meanwhile, U-North’s chief counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), sweats through many shirts, standing before a bathroom mirror rehearsing nearly every word of dialogue she’ll utter. And most of that dialogue is laced with ruinous ramifications for the film’s players — especially after she speaks with a “janitor” of far more dubious distinction than Clayton, retaining him for a fatal mop job.
Sydney Pollack, no stranger to legal thrillers, also serves as one of this film’s producers, alongside Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, and Anthony Minghella. All were no doubt impressed with Gilroy’s literate script, which ratchets up the tension almost imperceptibly. Gilroy is best known as the guiding hand behind the three Jason Bourne adventures, and he’s the real miracle worker here. Making his directorial debut (aided by expert editing work from his brother John), he’s elicited fiercely intelligent work from his actors. No fixing is necessary.