“I am Shiva, the god of death”
The publicity poster for Michael Clayton declared, “The Truth Can Be Adjusted.” I’ve no doubt it is being rewritten constantly as we speak, not least the “alternative facts” of Trump’s America, but in Tony Gilroy‘s power legal thriller it is about corporate spin and how reality can be concealed for prevention of a commercial disaster – at a cost.
This is a film with grit, gravitas, the same heavyweight qualities as sterling movies such as All The President’s Men and Network. It has a cast worthy of the mood, and after all you don’t employ the likes George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O’Hare, and Sydney Pollack (in his last film) unless you have serious intent.
The tone is set from the start with a powerful monologue spoken over feverish scenes in a busy legal practice, followed in rapid succession by tough talking to a journalist in a phone call, Clooney’s eponymous legal fixer and ex-restauranteur talking truth to a client who has driven away from a car accident… then Clayton’s Mercedes exploding while he is with horses in a field. Then we go into flashback 4 days previous to explain how we got there – and only second time around does the horror become apparent.
Clayton is like Pulp Fiction‘s Winston Wolfe without the tongue planted firmly in cheek. He is a man of substance, possessed of the ability to be taken seriously – what the late great Simon Hoggart used to call “bottom.” He talks through the bullshit, manages crisis scenarios and gives clients the unpalatable truth.
This includes Wilkinson’s brilliant but wayward attorney Arthur Edens. Edens suffers a manic episode during depositions in full knowledge he is defending an agricultural conglomerate U-North against a $3bn class action related to selling a weed killer it knew to be carcinogenic, reminding me strongly of Peter Finch‘s crazy broadcaster in Network.
Clayton covers up the incident and jails loose cannon Edens in his hotel room until his meds take effect; except Edens escapes. Guess which lawyer knows most about psychiatric commitment statutes? Yep, it’s Arthur! “This is cancer,” says Pollock’s managing partner Marty Bach. Clayton’s role is to contain the crisis or suffer the consequences.
Meanwhile, General Counsel for the company is Swinton’s Karen Crowder, a woman in a tricky position whose concern is how much information is leaked during depositions, but discovers that Edens found the smoking gun: memorandum 229. Damage limitation is one thing but will her moral conscience might get in the way of her loyalty to the company?
As the stakes rise, Arthur spreads the news – and then gets murdered for his pains in a way to look like an OD. And as for Michael? He gets uncomfortably close to the truth and almost pays with his life – but still gets the chance for revenge. There I shall draw a veil…
The plot is dense and brooding as it forensically unpicks the themes of mental illness, corporate corruption, and the effect on behaviour during legal cases played for high stakes – but nothing like the brooding intensity of the characters. Small wonder it was nominated for a host of gongs, though a shame the only one awarded was for Swinton (consolation prize for not even being nominated for her stunning performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Frankly, writer/director Gilroy deserved at least one for his splendid work, and as for Clooney, I doubt he was ever better. But then justice never was the way of the Academy, any more than lawyers really care about justice so much as winning. The two are not synonymous.