Michael Clayton is an unusual Hollywood film of substance. Unusual it is, for several reasons.
Rarely does a Hollywood film get released with a title of a fictional non-entity because it defies reasonable marketing strategies to win audiences. Erin Brockovich was a somewhat related film but there was a real person and real events behind that film’s title to attract audiences. Ed Wood was another example of a film with such a non-descript film title with just a person’s name-but again it was a biography of a real person. People who knew Ed Wood would show interest. But, Michael Clayton? The character Michael Clayton (played by George Clooney) is the product of screenplay-writer Tony Gilroy’s figment of imagination. And more surprisingly, the title character is not that of a fictional superman or a ladies man or even a high-flying lawyer. The burnt-out lawyer’s own admission in the movie is a hyperbole that rings in your ears as the film un-spools “I am not a miracle worker. I am a janitor.” Any sensitive viewer would be hooked by the Graham Greene like anti-hero’s pronouncement. And cleverly, the statement is placed early in the film by the screenplay-writer to hook the viewer.
Further, the movie is not based on a novel. It evolved from the observations of a talented screenplay-writer Gilroy who was astutely observing life in major US law firms while writing the screenplay of The Devil’s Advocate which had Al Pacino playing a leading role. Following Gilroy’s success as the screenplay-writer of the trio of fast-paced action films—Bourne Identity, Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum--Gilroy seems to have gathered confidence to weave a yarn bereft of the Bourne-type action but instead infused the tale with the adrenalin surges associated with insidious yet deadly corporate games. Here devious murders and explosions take place along the periphery of the main story—personal battles of three individuals, two men and a woman—all legal worthies of different hues--while confronting ethical issues.
Is the film offering entertainment that Hollywood never presented before? Yes and no.
A personal favorite, Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation (1974), is somewhat similar. That film is another infrequent example of a director filming his own original screenplay that was not adapted from any novel or play. A film of similar hue is another personal favorite--Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) made a year later based on the writing of little-trumpeted screenplay-writer Alan Sharp. Along with the Coppola film, another interesting cinematic effort crawled out of the Hollywood wood works—Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) made with an intelligent script of Robert Towne (uncredited) and two others, which in turn was based on a book by a certain Loren Singer. All the three movies underscored evil that is often not perceived by the common man.
More importantly the directors of these three films decided to examine individuals caught up in the quagmire of evil, where the viewer could put in perspective the troubled world of the individual pitted against the larger evil forces. These three films made an indelible impact on me with their brilliant final sequences—ones that capture complex troubled individuals pitted against murky macro-scenarios. In Coppola’s film, we see the protagonist seeking comfort in playing a saxophone all alone and morally beaten; in Penn’s film, it is the protagonist drifting on a seemingly rudderless boat going around in circles in an empty sea-scape; in Pakula’s film, the media are not allowed to ask questions but told to await a future report.
Three decades after the three interesting films came out of Hollywood, Gilroy presents a similarly evocative but different ending sequence—the protagonist hires a cab to say “Give me 50 dollars worth. Just drive.” The camera captures the silent facial expressions of Michael Clayton for a long while before the credits begin to roll. Unlike the three afore-mentioned films, here in Gilroy’s script/film there is a closure. But the audience is encouraged to relive the events of the film as we stare at George Clooney's face. Does the individual win against the system? If he did, at what cost we ask ourselves.
Many would question the above viewpoints to say that these are indeed the signatures of the directors and not those of the screenplay-writers involved. I agree it is a thin line that separates the two roles especially when they are different individuals donning the different hats.
To Michael Clayton’s credit the film does not have to merely survive solely because of its final sequence. The film reverberates not from gun shots but from the vivid and intelligent script. A second character in the film, Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson), when described as a legendary lawyer says “I am an accomplice”. Simple words, “accomplice” and “janitor” are used by two big lawyers to describe their own status as they deal with corporate intrigues on a day-to-day basis. Like Coppola’s creation Harry Caul in The Conversation, Michael Clayton and Arthur Edens of Michael Clayton are good guys with ethics who are perhaps psychologically and socially challenged compared to others. Edens' statement “I am Shiva, the Lord of Death (sic)” (it ought to have been 'Lord of Destruction' or 'the Transformer'), is repeated by Clayton towards the end of the film.
A third lawyer (played by Tilda Swinton in an Oscar-winning performance), a general counsel of a chemical pesticide company, is a woman executive who is climbing the corporate ladder, who spurns ethics and even stoops to kill in the process of her climb. With minimal screen time, the lady counsel's character is dissected for the viewer, thanks again to the clever script. So much is said in so short a screen time, if the viewer pays attention, and needless to add the short performance won an Oscar for Ms. Swinton.
None of the three main characters are normal, each of them are essentially loners and losers. Yet they are real and utterly believable. Only Clayton has a precocious son to care for, a young son who has advice picked from obscure children's tales for elders.
Finally, I am not surprised that the late director Sidney Pollack bankrolled this film and acted in the film as a morally ambiguous individual–a choice of roles he loved to portray on screen including his turn in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Pollack belongs to the rare clan of Hollywood directors who made remarkable offbeat films such as Castle Keep.
I guess that Gilroy and Pollack insisted to the studio marketing team that Michael Clayton be retained as the title because this colorless name could help an average viewer identify with the character and empathize with him/her and his/her eventual actions. Gilroy probably knew this was a film best directed by himself and took the plunge into direction. The film does look at three unremarkable individuals plotting their own interesting road maps while making compromises to reach their individual career goals. Somewhere along the story-line you encounter an ethereal scene of the protagonist trying to talk to three horses in a field as dawn breaks. Silent poetry in the midst of prose? And what’s more, Gilroy’s nonlinear narrative and word-smithy keeps a mature viewer delighted for a full two yet very short hours. Gilroy has proved that he can match Coppola's brilliant The Conversation, made three decades ago, with this film. A rare Hollywood film, indeed, from a very talented screenplay-writer!