With previous Oscar winners George Clooney and Tilda Swinton coasting towards another nomination for “The Descendants” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” respectively, it’s as good a time as ever to feature a movie they starred in together, Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton.” The 2007 Best Picture nominee (and winner for Swinton’s performance) is a gripping legal thriller that never takes you farther than a deposition room but provides legitimate fodder for thought beyond the annals of the court. Gilroy presents three characters, played by Clooney, Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson, who each must consider what place morality and truthfulness has in their lives and in their jobs as lawyers.
It all begins with Jerry Maguire-esque moment of awakening for Wilkinson’s Arthur Edens, an incredibly respected New York attorney, who suddenly realizes that he no longer wishes to deny his conscience by representing UNorth in a class action lawsuit that violates his ethics. After meeting with the victims of the company’s agrochemical products, the class action suit suddenly gets a human face for him … and Arthur feels the need to purge this skin of falseness so urgently that he strips naked in the middle of a deposition room.
While Arthur has a history of mental shakiness, Clooney’s Michael Clayton, the fixer for their firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, knows that there’s something more to the meltdown that a few chemical issues. Michael, facing staggering debt from a failed restaurant and questioning the value of his job, is forced into a rigorous self-examination that Clooney animates with the perfect balance of internalized and externalized emotion. He proves himself to be one of the best, if not THE best, actor of his generation at exploring tortured souls. He realizes Michael’s flaws so vividly but finds some hidden nobility so we care about the journey even while vacillating on our opinion of the character.
Meanwhile, the scene stealer is Swinton’s Karen Crowder, the general counsel for UNorth. She’s an über-Type A perfectionist who labors and frets over the smallest of details and really has no idea how to handle a situation like Arthur’s, which threatens to undo years of litigation and jeopardize millions of the company’s dollars – not to mention their reputation. As he descends into madness (or a divine clarity depending on where you stand), she descends into a professional hell where her off-the-record, back-alley decisions make the difference for the fate of the lawsuit. Karen, like the rest of the characters in the movie, are so richly written by Gilroy, who uses them to explore complex issues without ever being preachy or turning “Michael Clayton” into a silly morality play. In an era where “Inside Job” shows the actual moral bankruptcy of corporate America, the four-year-old movie remains incredibly relevant.