The tension between self-interest and selflessness lies at the core of Michael Clayton, a George Clooney-headlined drama that, for a time, effectively taps into a contemporary disgust with amoral corporate profiteering. Clooney is Michael Clayton, a “fixer” (a.k.a. solver of unsavory problems) at a top New York law firm who, at film’s inception, seems a withered shell of a man who believes himself to be not a “miracle worker” (as his bosses advertise) but merely a high-priced janitor. His disillusionment, amplified by gambling debts and resentment over his junkie brother’s role in torpedoing a business venture, is further deepened when the firm’s ace litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) strips nude during a billion-dollar lawsuit deposition in which he’s representing nefarious agrochemical company U/North. It’s an act that serves as Edens’s warning shot across his employers’ bow, indicating that he’s switching sides to help reveal U/North’s culpability, and soon leads Clayton to unpleasant revelations about the lengths to which people, including himself, will go to maintain power.
Employing sleek blues and grays that make big biz skullduggery seem downright sensual, writer-director Tony Gilroy takes cues from executive producer Steven Soderbergh, whose influence is also felt in the story’s flashback structure and Erin Brokovich-ish social consciousness. Gilroy’s script comes jam-packed with peripheral details, from Clayton’s family life, to a symbolic book discussed by Clayton’s son, to the machinations of the firm’s co-founder (Sydney Pollack) and chief counsel (Tilda Swinton), thereby giving Michael Clayton a depth of character and situation that helps obscure the fact that its uplifting narrative trajectory is creakily conventional. Assuming a counterfeit air of complexity via subplot overload is a strategy that makes the film not unlike Clayton and his adversaries, all expert manufacturers of misleading fictions.
And yet there’s sincerity in Gilroy’s belief in man’s aptitude for recognizing the error of his ways, as well as in his acknowledgement that realignments of one’s moral compass often require great application. That Clayton’s third-act transformation feels like wish-fulfillment is at least partially due to the fact that it comes at little personal cost. Still, damn if Clooney doesn’t sell it with gusto, exuding poignant confliction over choices which can never fully be atoned for even during the prolonged closing close-up that reveals the film’s guiding impetus as an Oscar-baiting vehicle for its leading man.