The Harvard Law (Movie) Review: Michael Clayton


Director: Tony Gilroyu

Starring: George Clooney, Sydney Pollack, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson

Every year there is at least one law-related movie heavily publicized as a definite hit. Michael Clayton is this year’s movie and it lives up to its publicity. George Clooney portrays Michael Clayton, the in-house “fixer” of the nationally renowned law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. While the burned out Clayton is clearly discontent with his position in the firm, a divorce and mounting debt have left him with no option but to continue to serve as the firm’s “janitor.” When the brilliant attorney (portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) handling the firm’s largest case suddenly sabotages the case by stripping in the middle of a deposition and chasing a plaintiff through a parking lot while still naked, Clayton is called in to clean up the mess. This mess is just the kind of disaster Clayton is famous for resolving – one that has no solution but the vaguely legal.

Clayton expects to find a manic-depressive attorney off his medication, but instead is confronted with a case that forces him to reconsider the limits of what he is willing to clean up. In addition to reflecting on his life, Clayton must contend with the client, litigator Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), whose career rests on bringing what is becoming a nightmarish case to an end by negotiating a multi-million dollar settlement, and Kenner Bach (Sydney Pollack), the firm’s named partner who knows the survival of his firm rests on the settlement of this case.

Although clearly not a message movie, Michael Clayton’s storyline makes it an engrossing intellectual thriller that holds its audience’s attention and keeps them guessing until the last moment. It asks its audience to consider some difficult moral problems, but it does so in an unassuming way that leaves its audience satisfied in questioning the motivations and actions of these lawyers at the end. Amazingly, Michael Clayton accomplishes this feat with only one explosion and no shootouts.

The writing is excellent, the directing is superb, and the storyline is polished, but it is the cast that makes Michael Clayton an exceptional movie. Clooney shed his movie star look and charm to become the wearied and disillusioned Clayton. Clayton’s a bad father and a failed businessman and Clooney makes his plight appealingly believable. Moreover, Clooney expertly layers an efficient ruthlessness atop Clayton’s tormented interior. With Clayton, Clooney merits serious Oscar consideration.

Wilkinson and Swinton also bring depth to their characters, and similarly merit Oscar consideration. Pollack brings an authoritative boldness to Bach, once again proving that he is just as good an actor as a director, if not better. In the end, Michael Clayton may not have enduring significance, but it is a movie that I know would be just as riveting the second time around.

Rating: ****

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