Film Review: Michael Clayton


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 wait, just wait, just-just-just… please hear me out because this is not an episode, relapse, fuck-up, it’s… I’m begging you Michael. I’m begging you. Try and make believe this is not just madness because this is not just madness. Two weeks ago I came out of the building, okay, I’m running across Sixth Avenue, there’s a car waiting, I got exactly 38 minutes to get to the airport and I’m dictating. There’s this, 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-I freeze, I can’t move, and I’m suddenly consumed with the overwhelming sensation that I’m covered with some sort of film. It’s in my hair, my face… it’s like a glaze… like a… 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-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-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… I realized Michael, that I had emerged not from the doors of Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the… 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 stain of it would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undo. And you know what I did? I took a deep cleansing breath and I set 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 that I have witnessed today, it must wait. It must stand the test of time. And Michael, the time is now.

This speech opens Michael Clayton, directed by Tony Gilroy and starring George Clooney. I watched this for the first time just before the Oscars in 2008, mainly because it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Clooney), Screenplay (Gilroy-who also wrote The Bourne Ultimatum), Score (James Newton Howard), Supporting Actor (Tom Wilkinson), and Supporting Actress (Tilda Swinton). I hadn’t heard much of the movie before, or just wasn’t interested from the PR, but I remember hearing that George Clooney was a shoe-in for the Best Actor win.

Michael Clayton closely resembles a John Grisham novel. It’s about a complex, confident, albeit convoluted character who is a “fixer” for a respected law firm. He becomes embroiled in a massive cover-up by a company on the receiving end of a class action lawsuit for the deadly toxic effects of a weedkiller–families are dying because of the company.

The senior litigator for the law firm has suffered a mental break, a crisis of conscience, supposedly due to the guilt of defending killers of innocents, especially after some startling revelations about the company’s awareness of their chemicals’ effects. The problems escalate, as do the risks, and ultimately the body count.

I’ve said it before, but I love non-chronological storytelling, and this works well. Moreover, it’s done nearly seamlessly. Clooney does give a great performance, as always, though not necessarily extraordinarily Oscar-worthy. Tom Wilkinson should have won, but Tilda Swinton pulled it off. She really is exceptional throughout.

I really enjoyed this movie, it’s got a good blend of action and exposition, of introspection and tension. This is another that I’ll accept on this list, though maybe toward the middle–although the subtle twist at the end really does tie it all together.

Favorite Quotes:

There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. The math on this is simple. The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.

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