Given the present occupants of the White House, it’s no surprise that conspiracy and whistle-blower pictures are making such a brisk comeback; Nixon’s nutty pathologies—which fueled the last wave of conspiracy films—seem in comparison almost endearing. Michael Clayton, the latest and greatest from the George Clooney Chomskyite Pinko Factory that gave us Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, doesn’t touch directly on this administration, but the story unfolds in a universe in which government oversight is nil and conglomerates and their gold-plated law firms have almost limitless resources, legal and extralegal. As in so many current films (and news stories), the last line of defense is the conscience of a tormented individual.
That individual is not Clooney’s Michael Clayton, an attorney who’s kept in the shadows of a huge law firm, where he works as a fixer, a scandal-janitor for lucrative clients. (One wonders, watching him zoom up to Westchester to mop up after a bigwig’s hit-and-run accident, whether a fixer was as swiftly on the scene of Clooney’s own recent motorcycle wreck.) It’s one of the firm’s partners, the hitherto ruthless litigator Arthur (a prodigiously twitchy Tom Wilkinson), who finally cracks under the strain of doing bad things on behalf of bad people—in this case, defending an Arthur Daniels Midland–like corporation against a multibillion-dollar class-action suit charging it with knowingly marketing a carcinogenic weed-killer.
One thing that helps keep this conversion melodrama from becoming sanctimonious (and wearying) is that Arthur’s righteous speeches are two-thirds gibberish and his ranting is accompanied, on one occasion, by stripping down to his underwear and trying to push his clothes on a young litigant. Very odd. It’s Clayton’s unhappy job to keep his old friend from winning the case for the other side, but Arthur is a slippery loon. He can duck out fire escapes and, when cornered, reel off the statutes that will keep him from being involuntarily committed. It falls to the conglomerate’s new chief legal counsel (Tilda Swinton) to go beyond gentle persuasion.
The writer and director, Tony Gilroy, makes Swinton a fascinating face of evil. In her first major scene, he cuts between her anxious rehearsal before the mirror of her first presentation to company executives and the smooth presentation itself—back and forth, back and forth, so that you’re sensitized to the tremulousness under the mask of crisp efficiency. You know she’s human and not a ruthless automaton, which is why her subsequent decisions are so shocking. She’ll do anything to measure up to her boss and mentor (Ken Howard)—which drives home the point that it’s the people who are least secure in their power who tend to abuse it so impulsively.
Gilroy wrote all three Bourne films (as well as a guilty pleasure of mine, the screwed-up ice-skating romance The Cutting Edge), but Michael Clayton is a vastly different kind of conspiracy thriller. It’s not one of those jittery motion-sickness pictures that accelerate around every narrative curve. It holds to a measured beat, to the point where you feel a growing impatience—a good impatience, like when you’re reading some potboiler and can’t breathe too easily and can’t turn the pages fast enough. Maybe that’s why the climax, a dialogue in which no voice is raised, is so smashingly cathartic and why the line “I am Shiva, god of death” will enter the lexicon. The dénouement, the last shot of the film, is hauntingly strange and sad; I didn’t want the image to fade to black.
Clooney is as good as he has ever been. He uses his glamour as a mask, internalizing everything; only a faint touch of glibness clues you in to Clayton’s disgust with what he does and the people with whom he does it. He broods, but he keeps moving. When his boss—Sydney Pollack in one of his peerless, low-key executive performances—tells Clayton, “We always knew this case reeked,” you see it dawn on him, as if for the first time, that being a cog in an infernal machine is not a design for living.