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Michael Clayton cleans up

By Adam Barish

Section: Arts

February 1, 2008

With the announcement of the nominees for the Oscar, it can be expected that many people will head to the movie theater to watch the movies which received the coveted nominations. In the past, many have said that the best movies of the year are released in December (which may not hold true in more recent years), but I thought that 2007 would be a different story.

I was optimistic as I went to see Michael Clayton, which has been brought back to theaters, likely the result of its recent Oscar nod for Best Picture. Michael Clayton tells the story of a high-profile law firm’s fixer-upper. He is, as he calls it, their “janitor,” and makes legal and PR issues somehow vanish.

But what’s to stop an institution from doing real damage when it can simply make its problems disappear? Can a man live while knowing he protects the guilty?

These are the questions at the heart of this story – though you wouldn’t know it from the title. The title leaves much to be desired and makes viewers unsure of what’s to come, much like the film.

Most movies named after a character follow that person and their life changes, but Michael Clayton is certainly filled with richly developed characters and an even more richly developed plot line – though maybe “convoluted” is a better word to describe the happenings.

The title is simultaneously prophetic and deceptive. It begs the question, “who is Michael Clayton?” as you walk into the theater. But, in the end, you leave the theater asking, “what is he?”

His life is ordinary in the sense that any man could be him, and yet it is extraordinary in that we know that on some level that he isn’t any of us. We will never be and could never be Michael Clayton, but we will forever expect him to be there, forever demand that someone does what he does. This complex and somewhat mysterious title character is portrayed by George Clooney, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his work in this movie.

In the movie, Clayton’s job becomes very difficult when his friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the chief litigator for a major client and partner in the firm, has what appears to be a manic depressive meltdown in which he strips down naked, screaming indiscernibly. Now Arthur is going wildly mad about what he deems to be the corruption of a company he has spent six years defending, the law firm is in trouble and needs an end to it, and Michael is stuck in the middle, forced to take a deeper look and not just consider how to do his job, but whether to do his job.

Michael attempts to balance his own personal debts and issues while trying to decide what he thinks of the firm and determine if Arthur really is crazy. Throughout all this, we have no idea how the pieces will, or if they will, fall into place. The film showcases strong performances from Sydney Pollack and Tilda Swinton, but not even Clooney could outdo Wilkinson. Wilkinson was truly fabulous in his portrayal of Arthur, and is extremely deserving of his nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Still, the whole of the cast is what takes this movie from being a good one to a great one.

Tony Gilroy, who wrote and directed the film, has woven a very delicate web in Michael Clayton, and the question with any movie of this nature is whether it will work, or whether it will be lost on the audience. I was lost in spurts from beginning to end, unsure of where the movie was going from scene to scene, but I loved it. Tony Gilroy made his actors look better with their words, and made his story look better with some of the best and most creative cinematography I have seen in years.

I don’t love a lot of films, though I do like many, and I was generally disheartened by what I had thought would be a 2007 filled to the brim with excellent movies. Yet Michael Clayton in some part alleviated my cinematic disappointment with this past year. Michael Clayton dares you to witness what is essentially an old-fashioned shootout: no one knows the consequences of being the first one to blink.

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