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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007 01:02 am

When it matters

Michael Clayton shows there’s a price for staying quiet

Michael Clayton Running time 1:59 Rated R ShowPlace West
Untitled Document There’s nothing strikingly original about Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton. Legal thrillers of this sort have been a cinematic staple for quite some time, reaching their zenith when every John Grisham novel was guaranteed to be adapted to the big screen, and tales of corrupt characters facing a crisis of conscience are nearly as old as the medium itself. What makes Clayton unique and important is the urgency with which it tells its tale, a timely call to action that serves as a metaphor for the complacency that permeates our society. Though not as overt as Robert Redford’s upcoming Lions for Lambs, Gilroy’s film is a timely cry for personal action in a world gone corrupt. Michael Clayton (George Clooney, who gives a haunting performance) has long since forgotten when he first compromised his principles. In the role of “fixer” at a powerful corporate law firm, he takes care of dicey legal problems for his partners’ well-heeled clients, people of privilege who assume that they’re above the law and feel that money will solve any problem. Clayton knows full well how far he’s fallen — divorced and in dire financial straits, he cannot move on professionally, and he sees his son only sporadically — and refers to himself as a janitor. Clayton eventually encounters a situation that appears to be beyond fixing. The firm that employs Clayton is handling a $3 billion class-action suit for U/North, a massive conglomerate that’s manufactured a toxic weed killer. The powers that be at the corporation, including their internal counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), know that they’re liable, as does Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), an outside attorney who’s been working on the case for years. Consumed with guilt over his role in the cover-up, he finally has a meltdown during a deposition with the daughter of a dead plaintiff, taking off his clothes and chasing her from the room with promises that he will provide her with the proof she needs to win her claim. Clayton is dispatched to deal with his colleague and assure Crowder that things are under control. As he digs deeper into the case, however, he begins to consider his own role in the cover-up.
Jerry Maguire, A Civil Action, and The Verdict all come to mind as Michael Clayton unfolds, but Gilroy’s film, although it certainly contains elements from those movies, is distinct. We can relate to it flawed characters, each of them fully realized and sympathetic, as they face their personal dilemmas. Clayton, Edens, and Crowder each face a crisis of faith, and all must make decisions that will affect their lives forever. Although the financial stakes are high, money becomes a petty concern in the face of a moral proposition that will either damn or save them. To be sure, Michael Clayton is an effective thriller, containing more than its share of dramatic twists and turns, and that alone makes it an intriguing entertainment — but it is the film’s subtext that grabs you. Clayton is our surrogate, a man who has been complacent about corruption for far too long. Gilroy provides him with one last chance to act, and in a sense he’s urging us to do so as well, pointing out that we’ve been quiet for far too long in the face of rampant corruption. Like Clayton himself, Gilroy is telling us it’s time to act before it’s too late, and his message couldn’t be clearer or timelier.