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Corporate Crime, Law, and Social Control
by Sally S. Simpson
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
Writer Tony Gilroy (all 3 Bourne films, "Proof of Life," "Armageddon") picks up the viewfinder for his first crack at directing and, as one might expect when a writer takes the reins, it is a highly literary piece of work. It's a good thing, and it's no mistake that he landed a star with a colossal following who also has special regard for the psychological thriller that exposes systemic corruption. It follows that it comes out with a special kind of brilliance that should have the industry breathing in its vapors come nomination time.
Some might say that George Clooney isn't an A-list actor; he is the A-list!
As lawyer Michael Clayton, he's so good at what he does, the last thing his boss Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, would allow him to do is represent a client in court. If there's one thing this key partner of the Manhattan corporate law firm recognizes is talent and, early on, pulled his boy away from mere legal representation to a rarer specialty, the quasi-legal "alteration" of clients' dumb and illegal acts. Clayton may be the best "fixer" of legal embarrassments for the mighty rich that the firm has ever had.
The film begins with Clayton at the wheel of his car showing signs of stress and sleepless nights. Driving out on a rural road, he notices something on a hill that bewilders him. He comes to a full stop and studies something on the top of a hill. As he ascends it, we see three horses under a tree. He approaches the animals and they remain motionless, studying the well dressed dude studying them.
The still tableau is interrupted by a blast. Then another. His car is aflame. The horses run off. Puzzled, he starts down the hill. And, we dissolve to 3 days before, tipped off to the dangerous ground he's treading.
The stakes are very high, indeed. Bach is on the cusp of pulling off a merger with a major London firm just as their best litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), defending agrochemical conglomerate U/North in a class-action lawsuit has gone bonkers. In the middle of a deposition with his counterpart on the client's side, U/North's lead counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), Edens rips off his clothes down to his socks in an unstable rage when he realizes that his client has been lying to him about distributing a harmful pesticide--an outrage to his principles. This headline-making act is not only going to dump the years-long multi-billion dollar case in the toilet, it's now threatening the firm's merger. Bring in the fixer.
As that man, Clayton not only knows where all the bodies are buried, he knows what mood enhancing pills are behind Edens' bathroom mirror and how vital they are to his state of mind. No matter what corrupt methods U/North may have used in order to improve their chances of winning in court, Eden's acting out could demolish it and it has to be brought under control. Trouble is, after Clayton finally locates his longtime colleague, he finds a man whose behavior has more to do with morality than meds. Which puts Clayton in a bad position trying to correct a problem that may not be fixable.
U/North is no passive participant. Crowder, as the company's devoted chief counsel, is a sharp legal mouthpiece. A lonely spinster, there's nothing else in her life but her company and her CEO who has been her mentor. Her personal life consists of rehearsing her presentations in front of a mirror -- in an otherwise empty apartment -- before client meetings. The job now is to protect her people from the threat of a deranged litigator... at any cost. After a meeting with no-nonsense Clayton who is as straight-spined and more prepared than she is, she realizes that her problem may be more than Edens.
While the complexity of these issues, relationships and machinations may be difficult to wade through at first, it emerges into a scenario of considerable suspense. There's a scene in which Clayton's car is being wired with the bomb while he is walking toward it, a moment that Hitchcock might have appreciated.
Movies about corporate shenanigans and legal entanglements is a minefield of risk as far as film payback is concerned calling, as they do, for a degree of interest in an arcane subject. Undoubtedly, Warner's is banking on the Clooney following, which, with a robust backup cast and excellent production values, may be enough to recoup its $25 million investment.
With his calm charismatic manner and a character whose control is challenged by debts and sleeplessness, Clooney's earnest intensity is the key to sustaining tension in a case of corporate corruption. The weak point is in the character build up of Swinton's spacey character.
The dialogue is strong and incisive, delivered by a team of actors at the top of their form (Wilkinson stands out). The score by James Newton Howard hits all the right tempi to keep the pulse on the right pace. And, on the Clooney filmography scale, this is more a "Syriana" than an "Ocean's" romp and you can't help becoming engaged in the intrigue of the theme that drives it. Which is why, I suppose, I wasn't very anxious for it to end. Of course it did, and I still feel good about it.
~~ Jules Brenner
(Also on Blu-ray)