Even the name has a solidity and self-confidence to it: Michael Clayton . It's the name of a new film starring George Clooney in the titular role. The actor, and writer/first-time-director Tony Gilroy, know they are working with a great script - oiled, sharp, serrated. Gilroy was so sure he had a winner - and that nobody could play Michael Clayton but George Clooney - that he was willing practically to stalk the actor to get him on board. That utter confidence in the material has spread to the actor, who does some of his most understated and nuanced work. He and Gilroy have made a legal thriller head and shoulders above Hollywood adaptations of the John Grisham books, say.
The film opens with a rapid-talking, half-incoherent voice, ranting about the evils of big law firms and big corporations. It is the voice of Arthur Edens, played by Tom Wilkinson. Edens, we learn, was the architect of the entire defense of a giant agri-conglomerate, which is being sued in a three billion dollar class action suit. A brilliant litigator, Edens is also bipolar. Apparently, he has cracked from the strain, ripping off his clothes in a deposition and running naked down the street. He is currently cooling his heels in a Milwaukee jail.
Michael Clayton has been with the same law firm, along with Edens, for a dozen years, but has never risen in the ranks. We learn that this is by design; he has been groomed to operate below the radar. When one of the firm's star clients gets into a situation he can't handle, Clayton is sent in, empowered with all the firm's connections, quietly to clean up the mess. When he goes to clean up Arthur Edens, a friend and mentor, Edens tells him, "We're not lawyers. We're janitors." It's clear from the fatigue in Clayton's shoulders and eyes that he agrees. Though he is divorced, no longer young, and practically broke from gambling, his profession has utterly sapped the energy needed to change his life.
If there's one thing a person has while in a manic state, its energy. It takes a brave actor to go toe to toe with Tom Wilkinson, who is like a grizzly bear when he turns on you. Clooney is up to it. Clayton and Edens have a series of fascinating verbal duels. Edens, off his meds, is clearly insane at the moment; Clayton is getting through enough that Edens recognizes this. "You'd better listen to me, because I don't see anybody else with a broom on the horizon. I'm IT, Arthur." But Edens demands: is Clayton so sure that it's JUST the madness? "I've spent 12% of my life defending the reputation of a deadly weed killer," he declaims with the fury of Moses on Mount Sinai. "Everything is radiant; I'm not losing this." The film is perceptive here. It is a feature of some manic episodes that the sufferer knows he is manic, but refuses to give up the high, which, frankly, does give one the edge (never mind the crash at the end). And sometimes, madness and genius are indistinguishable. In this case, the spiritually-exhausted Michael Clayton is sparked by Edens's flame, and will soon be consumed by a conflagration of purpose and meaning.
As good a film as Michael Clayton is - and it's very good indeed, an outstanding entertainment - Tony Gilroy is not yet at the level of the directors he is emulating, among them Sidney Pollack, who has a role in the film, lending the power, cynicism, and veiled menace that are his specialty. Other '70s icons Gilroy probably admires are Alan J. Pakula, and especially Sidney Lumet. Gilroy has not made The Verdict at least not yet. There's nothing wrong with where he puts the camera, but he doesn't work the space between angry men to bring out the tension.
That said, as you watch his shrewd, assured entertainment, you may have to pinch yourself to remember that this is Gilroy's first time as a director. It's yet another argument that the writer should more often be in charge. As Harlan Ellison once said, "Directors are just men who cannot live within their allotment of adoration. Writers do the whole damn dream." Amen to that.