What struck me most about Michael Clayton is how all the players on this project came together as an ensemble, and took this film to a much higher level than might otherwise have been achieved. This is an extreme example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. When you look at the foundational pieces that make up this film, they are nothing special for the slick productions we have come to expect from Hollywood. By foundational I mean the story/script, music, art direction, costume and make-up. Certainly there are brilliant moments in the dialog, and score, But the entire film has been elevated several levels by the amazing performances of the actors. Each and every thespian turns in a performance perfectly pitched for the story. Credit of course goes to the casting, but it continues through to the director (Tony Gilroy) strategically placing his pieces on the chess board in a stunning gambit. Those accomplishments have been acknowledged with 3 Academy Award nominations for acting, as well as 4 others; direction, music, original screenplay and picture.
However, the real stand out, the thing that pulls it all together in my mind, is the editing (by John Gilroy, the director’s brother). It’s his work that builds importance and power through the opening pre-minutes, then seamlessly splices together a patchwork story into the final film that earned a Best Picture nomination. In an unfortunate oversight, his name is missing from this year’s Oscar nomination list; I can see how it might have been overlooked when you look at the competition. But I posit, without Mr. Gilroy’s skill, Michael Clayton would not be on the Best Picture roster.
That insider is Artur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) the law firm’s star litigator who has been willing to stay with this case for the firm and their client, U North. Arthur has a chemical imbalance, stops taking his meds and creates a scene by removing his clothes in a deposition hearing, then chases the witness into the parking lot wearing nothing more than his socks. Mr. Wilkinson’s rants remind me of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) from Network. Middle aged, reliable, brilliant, willing to do anything he’s asked, and slightly left of center. Edens teeters back and forth between mad professor, and adolescent boy looking for a way to beat the bullies and get back a small part his lost youth.
U North has just promoted Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) to head legal counsel, and sends her to Minnesota to straighten out the Edens predicament. Meanwhile the law firm dispatches their “fixer” Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to do the same. Clayton has been with the firm for years and his talent is swooping in when there is a mess, or about to be one, and making things seem normal again. Clayton’s life is in turmoil, as usual the shoemaker has no shoes. His marriage has dissolved, he sees his son regularly, but doesn’t really connect, he has a gambling problem, and a recent business venture with his brother has gone bust, leaving him with a large financial problem. Clayton is a steeping pot waiting for someone or something to uncork the kettle. Mr. Clooney plays it Clooney cool, but allows us a glimpse into the tortured side of his character as he struggles to piece together family and career. It’s touching and very real.
Crowder is calculating, neurotic, and will do anything to further her position. Ms. Swinton captures it beautifully, taking us inside her character’s head. We see her rehearsing her speech while carefully laying out the big meeting’s wardrobe to show us how comfortable she is inside the friendly confines of the law office. These rituals have served her well. But when the fight moves to the street she is in way over her head.
Pic technical aspects are first rate. Strong direction and photography are right on for the complex thriller genre. It helps us forget sometimes that the story is a retread. But the script has numerous holes, and is in such a hurry to get to the end that it misses some rich opportunities along the way. Still, I would recommend this for its acting quality, doesn’t get much better, and the way the filmmakers assemble the elements into a fast-moving entertaining couple of hours.