Slowly but surely, George Clooney
is venerating different decades from Hollywood's storied past. His Ocean's larks with Steven Soderbergh
are throwbacks to the swinging '60s. He resurrected the paranoia of 1950s McCarthyism in his directorial effort Good Night, and Good Luck, then recreated a sinister, post-World War II film noir in The Good German
(also with Soderbergh). Confessions of a Dangerous Mind paid goofy tribute to '70s small-screen icon Chuck Barris. Later this year, Clooney will crib comedic styles from Cary Grant's 1940s romper-stompers for the romantic farce Leatherheads.
And then there is Michael Clayton, a gripping and complicated thriller with hush-hush undertones that would fit comfortably alongside similar films from the 1970s -- think of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation or Alan J. Pakula The Parallax View, because Clayton writer-director Tony Gilroy
certainly had pictures of this fabric in mind. Article continues below
The suspicious Clayton moves like a '70s picture but has roots in modern industrial problems such as corporate deception and greed. Attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson
) leads the defense team in a $3 billion class-action suit filed against U/North. The company is being sued by salt-of-the-earth farmers because of a germ killer U/North used despite knowing it was hazardous to people's health. Pay little attention to the details, though, because this plot is one of the largest MacGuffins we've seen in years. The story is about the lawsuit without really being about the lawsuit, if that makes sense. The picture, after all, isn't titled U/North, right?
No, Gilroy chose Michael Clayton because his script eventually focuses on the man (Clooney), a legal fixer and B.S. filter for corporate law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. His weight is felt when Edens' guilty conscience catapults him over the edge of sanity. Edens obtained documents proving U/North knew of the chemical's harmful effects, but buried the findings to continue turning profit. Now Edens wants to blow a few whistles, and the higher-ups and Kenner, Bach & Ledeen assign Clayton to ensure that doesn’t happen.
As a writer, Gilroy adequately balanced tension and plot in three Bourne movies and Proof of Life. His iron-clad Clayton script improves his storytelling skills. He has a solid grasp on a muddy morality mess -- not an easy task. This multi-layered character study requires audience patience as it constructs the tiers, but rewards us with surprising discoveries. Clooney and Gilroy keep character details in the shadows. They both comprehend when and where to shine a metaphorical light, though, unraveling the plot and revealing another piece to this complicated individual.
Directorially, Gilroy shows us the sweat that paranoia can produce. His tightly paced film teeters along the proverbial razor's edge between doing what's moral and what is beneficial. Clayton has been doing the latter for so long, he's not sure he remembers how to do the former. Gilroy also has a good eye for shots that say more than what is initially implied.
These morally ambiguous characters seem to attract Clooney. He's at his best wallowing in the gray area between noble and devious. Even his highest-profile roles fit the mold, from well-intentioned con artist Danny Ocean to crime fighter Batman and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne.
Clooney gets great support from his co-stars. When not producing and directing, Sydney Pollack
remains capable of dramatic potency as an actor. He is excellent as Marty Bach, a partner in Clayton's firm and a man who has grown weary putting out fires. Wilkinson can work up a frenzy, but he also musters compassion for his emotionally scarred lawyer. And Swinton
, the opposite end of the spectrum, is as cold and clinical as the picture needs her to be. In one pivotal scene, Swinton can be seen rehearsing the lies she will give in an interview. Gilroy helps blur the line between fiction and fact by interspersing her practiced speech with the actual media cross-examination. It's one of those crisp interactions Gilroy uses throughout his excellent film to wring deeper meaning out of what could have been a simple scene.