Year Released: 2007
Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
(R, 120 min.)
"In Love and war women are more barbaric than men." Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
With only two explosions – actually one that is recycled – and not even the hint of a car chase, we might call this a thriller for the pacemaker crowd. Or more correctly, a permutation of the genre where character matters more than action. And that’s a good thing.
Ostensibly, the plot revisits standard social action dramas such as Erin Brockovich, The China Syndrome, or The Rainmaker, where the lone crusader does battle with the evil corporate giant. Part of the attraction to these films was the step-by-step unmasking of insidious corporate corruption and the ensuing horror and shock that these giants could so willfully maim and kill young innocents.
Michael Clayton assumes we already understand these giants are immutably evil, that the audience is beyond shock at their malfeasance, and doesn’t waste time slowly revealing their secrets.
And it’s not some youthful idealist out to get them, but one of their own - in fact, the very lawyer who has been working tirelessly on a settlement of their case for almost six years. Arthur Edens turns on U North, the agrochemical firm whose weed killer has taken down some humans as well as noxious greenery.
Played with just the right amount of manic righteousness by Tom Wilkinson, Edens finally goes over the edge at a deposition, disrobing and professing his love for one of the young plaintiffs. The firm’s fixer, Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is sent in to clean up the mess and get the bipolar Edens back on his meds as well as the corporate bandwagon ASAP. Writer /director Gilroy keeps things purposely ambiguous. Is the lapse in pill popping merely an aberration or has something about the case finally jolted the good counselor away from his buffered reality?
And Clooney’s Michael Clayton is the antithesis of any young earnest types about to set the world straight. In fact, he can’t quite manage his own, being a divorced dad, well meaning but detached, and just about drained from mopping up after a business failure, his gambling addiction, and his alcoholic business partner brother. His world-weary face and sad, stoic eyes say it all.
Allied against the manic crusader and his cynical minder is the U North attorney, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) who is nonetheless lethal because she suffers a few panic attacks and lays out her wardrobe and speeches with the same practiced precision in front of her mirror. In fact, her very insecurities create a banality of evil that is perhaps even more devastating than the more melodramatic version. That she doesn’t thrill in bloodletting, that, in fact, she sweats in a bathroom stall as her henchmen do her bidding, is maybe more frightening than the malice of a ruthless villain.
You may have noticed that this drama is played out one level removed. The bereaved victims and the U North executives make only slightly more than cameo appearances. It is their lawyers who do the battling. But it isn’t their battle per se that is of interest, but the long-term effects it has on them.
Making a living that depends on a steady diet of defending the indefensible takes its toll, and self-protection nearly triumphs over conscience. When confronted with incontrovertible evidence of U North’s guilt, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) head of the law firm defending them, doesn’t bat an eye. He has assumed the worst right from the beginning. And Michael Clayton is also willing to turn a blind eye to just about everything until it cuts close to his own skin. He is not so much a knight battling for justice, but a footman wielding a bloody sword at the bloke who means to kill him.
Maybe that’s the attraction here, a “thriller” that wades through the grey debris of a world inhabited by neither villains nor heroes, but very fragile humans who look and act a little too much like us.
The manic Arthur Edens proves to be one mess Michael Clayton cannot clean up. He never does come back to the fold, and manages to elude his colleague for several days.
When Clayton finally does track him down just outside his shabby/chic loft, he is carrying an armful of French bread, as happy as a kid whose pockets are stuffed with penny candy. He even offers one to Michael with an innocent smile. It is with that same smile that he provides a superbly rational legal argument against having him committed, as he has correctly assumed that the firm is relying on this option.
So if Arthur Edens is crazy, he is crazy like a fox.
By the way, Michael turns down the French loaf, but you don’t have to.
Perfect French Bread
- 6 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
- 1 tablespoon cornmeal
- 1 egg white
- 1 tablespoon water
- In a large bowl, combine 2 cups flour, yeast and salt. Stir in 2 cups warm water, and beat until well blended using a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment. Using a wooden spoon, stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can.
- On a lightly floured surface, knead in enough flour to make a stiff dough that is smooth and elastic. Knead for about 8 to 10 minutes total. Shape into a ball. Place dough in a greased bowl, and turn once. Cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled.
- Punch dough down, and divide in half. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Cover, and let rest for 10 minutes. Roll each half into large rectangle. Roll up, starting from a long side. Moisten edge with water and seal. Taper ends.
- Grease a large baking sheet. Sprinkle with cornmeal. Place loaves, seam side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Lightly beat the egg white with 1 tablespoon of water, and brush on. Cover with a damp cloth. Let rise until nearly doubled, 35 to 40 minutes.
- With a very sharp knife, make 3 or 4 diagonal cuts about 1/4 inch deep across top of each loaf. Bake in a preheated 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) oven for 20 minutes. Brush again with egg white mixture. Bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until bread tests done. If necessary, cover loosely with foil to prevent over browning. Remove from baking sheet, and cool on a wire rack.
Recipe Source: Allrecipes.com