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Michael Clayton

Another Compelling Turn by George Clooney

Longtime screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s (the Bourne trilogy, Proof of Life, Armageddon) first feature-length film as a director, Michael Clayton, is both a smart, tautly paced thriller that works on most every level and George Clooney’s latest star turn.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney), an in-house "fixer" at one of Manhattan's largest corporate law firms, Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, gets called in by the managing partner, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), to clean up a potentially catastrophic mess. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior litigator supervising a multi-billion dollar class action suit against one of the firm’s corporate clients, U/North, has had a very public meltdown at a deposition hearing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which leads to an arrest for public indecency and serious damage to U/North’s defense of the lawsuit. Clayton also has problems of his own, including a strained relationship with his son, Gene (Sean Cullen), from a broken marriage and a loan due on a failed business venture to unsavory characters.

Flying in to Milwaukee, Clayton gets Edens out of the local jail but soon discovers that the manic-depressive Edens has had an epiphany of sorts. Contemplating his values and actions in the case, Edens has decided to hand the plaintiff's incriminating evidence, a memo signed by U/North’s CEO, Don Jefferies (Ken Howard), against U/North. The company's general counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), worried about the financial fallout from Edens’ behavior, calls in fixers of her own, Mr. Greer (Denis O'Hare) and Mr. Verne (Robert Prescott), to follow, and if necessary, “fix” the situation before Edens goes public with the memo.

Michael Clayton is tightly written, tautly paced, topical thriller, an obvious example of an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter using storytelling tools to maximum effect. The opening scenes, which we quickly learn occur at the end of the film, set up Clayton as an ethically challenged character forced to choose between principle and power, between friendship and loyalty to his powerful benefactors.

Michael Clayton then flashes back four days and returns us full circle back to the opening scenes. It's a great hook to get us interested in who Michael Clayton is and adds intrigue and mystery to the unfolding storyline. The same goes for the supporting characters, all of them written with a narrative shorthand that screenwriting students can use as textbook examples of how to introduce complex, morally compromised characters. The film also offers the kind of character moments actors thrive on, minus heavy exposition or dialogue-driven scenes that tend to slow or stop narrative momentum.

As well constructed or structured as Michael Clayton is, the one problem it doesn't quite overcome is that of plausibility. Despite Clayton's semi-outsider status within the law firm and a quick rundown of his past, including a stint as an assistant district attorney before he took the corporate route, we're expected to believe that he not only suffers a crisis of conscience but that he also changes his worldview and (potentially) sacrifices his livelihood and future for the truth. His apparent naïveté or willful ignorance is, at least, brought up explicitly to address audience concerns about this issue. Even then, though, Michael Clayton doesn't manage to overcome the plausibility hurdle.

Although Clooney is in practically every scene, Michael Clayton is no vanity project. Gilroy's writing and directing and his collaborators, including a strong supporting cast headed up by Tom Wilkinson and, behind the camera, production designer Kevin Thompson and cinematographer Robert Elswit. As Clayton, Clooney has to show some emotional range and growth, all of which Clooney pulls off without breaking a sweat. Clooney's the rare Hollywood "star" with acting talent and while a point might be made about his range as an actor, he's always been a compelling onscreen presence. And, with Gilroy’s screenplay to work from, Michael Clayton is no exception.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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