Michael Clayton- Will the Truth Set You Free? (originally written March 6th, 2009)
The world has taught us since the day we were born that we should always aspire to honesty, and some historical figures have lost much depth and truth to become maxims for this virtue. However, this moralizing pedagogy is derived from a system concurrently whispering in our naive ears that we must do whatever it takes to succeed. The perils of such a disconnect are evident in Tony Gilroy’s 2007 film Michael Clayton, which can be found in the Grace Doherty Library DVD collection.
The title character, portrayed by George Clooney, is a disaffected “fixer” for a prominent New York law firm who, due to financial problems created by a wayward brother, has become quite desperate. Clooney’s performance is absolutely astonishing; here, he sheds his “pretty boy” image, taking on the role of a modern-day Atlas: when we first see Michael, we know this is a man who carries the problems of his world on his back. Rarely has the screen given shape to a character so visibly fatigued. Even after the film’s conclusion, Clooney continues to give a bravura performance, which alone would have been enough to earn him an Oscar nomination; be sure to watch the credits, featuring a beautiful pantomime performance of a man who has made an incredibly tough decision and must now live with the consequences
Clayton is sent by his firm to Milwaukee to rectify a situation involving the instability of one of their top lawyers, Arthur Edens, who is representing U-North, a major manufacturer of agricultural products, in a class-action lawsuit. Edens, as played by Tom Wilkinson, is not your standard insane character; on the contrary, he’s the sanest guy in the room, becoming the only person able to see the truth of the hypocrisy and greed he has disturbingly enabled for so long, then attempts to distance himself from it, intending to bring the corruption and truth of U-North to public scrutiny.
Completing the main cast is Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder, the new head of Legal Affairs for U-North. What Ms. Swinton has done here is transform a character that could be performed as your cardboard creation into a living, breathing persona. Crowder develops into the film’s main villain, but unlike most devious fictional creations, we never feel like she’s a bad person, but instead someone who is desperate to show her bosses she can take care of business. In one scene, as Crowder’s preparing to take drastic action to keep company information secret, she hesitates and ponders the ramifications to be unleashed, she hesitates for several seconds, and in those moments, the viewer watches a soul searching itself, questioning what should be done. Such evidence of humanity makes Crowder one of the most intriguing screen antagonists in years; it’s no wonder Ms. Swinton won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this performance.
However, this is far from a perfect film. The subplot involving Michael and his brother, while giving the title character additional angst, does not seem real and fluid, but stale and tacked on, and one crucial point of an important concluding scene has been used in so many works that it has become quite clichéd. Nevertheless, Gilroy’s script, save for the above reservations, is tight, compact, but open-ended enough to leave the fate of Michael Clayton up to the viewer. While the truth may set you free, Michael Clayton is exactly the type of film that pulls you in and rarely lets you go, even when it ends.