Michael Clayton is a fixer. His 17-year employ at a law firm causes the musing, “He’s been with the firm for 17 years and he’s not a partner?” But Clayton isn’t the type of lawyer firms want to advertise. In fact, he embodies the image and actions of everything that lawyers try to shy away from, but is what we assume is probably the crux of their jobs and their lives. And that seepage into their lives is where the problem lies.
Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut is an amazing film that revolves around a corporation who knowingly produces a product that kills people. Yet the film isn’t about that at all. Michael Clayton is about the people whose job it is to defend, hide and fix clients’ problems (like the one above), develop a conscience about doing it and how they face that conscience. Gilroy’s script is equally on par with his other works, most notably the Bourne trilogy, as he demonstrates each of the main characters either standing up to what they see is wrong or being too weak to do so and getting sucked in further. The film is a character study about people who are doing wrong and how that affects them. Clearly the person we are supposed to follow is Michael Clayton, masterfully portrayed by George Clooney. Clooney embodies his character, embracing his tiredness, his weaknesses and his metamorphosis into a person with a conscience in a culture that ignores any sense of right and wrong. In this film Clooney continues his climb as an artist, embracing and exposing his characters effectively on screen and with Michael Clayton, he clearly deserves the Best Actor nomination he earned with the Academy.
But even more notable in this film is the performance of Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Eddins, a lawyer who unravels. In a deposition, Eddins strips naked and spews incoherent thoughts, causing concern amongst the law firm as to what this will do for the stability of their defense for this corporation. Eddins suddenly sees and feels that what he is doing is wrong, that his job is to defend and hide something that is knowingly harming unsuspecting people. He drastically changes direction, building a case against his former client. It is Eddins’s change that induces Clayton’s change. Wilkinson approaches this character with such intensity and ferocity, that we almost buy into the idea that he is crazy until he shows us that he isn’t at all, that our startled reaction to him is due to the fact that he’s showing emotions in a so far emotionless film. Wilkinson’s catalyst performance is deserving of the praise he has received. Hell, his opening voice-over alone is worthy of that praise.
Michael Clayton could have easily fallen into the trap of becoming a film that rallies against big business, showing how corporations continually look past the people it affects with an eye on the bottom line. However, this film took the high road and looked at the people who allow these things to happen. Blaming big business is easy. Its a faceless entity that can’t fight back. Blaming yourself for letting it happen is hard. Michael Clayton shows that even someone who is so entrenched in it can still rise up and make a difference.