Michael Clayton

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Michael Clayton
Review (9.5/10)
(By Erin Cullin)

In 1760 B.C., King Hammurabi set the Hammurabi Code to stone and posted it in a town marketplace in ancient Babylon. I have no doubt that, the following day, the first ancient lawyer came strolling into the marketplace, trying to find ways to test the boundaries of that Code.

Since the birth of law, there have been lawyers. And there have been people who detest lawyers.

I am not sure when lawyers came to be held in such low regard, although a quick review of literature suggests that it has been a long-held belief. There is a French proverb that, "A good lawyer is a bad neighbour" and a German proverb that, "When two dogs fight for a bone, and a third runs off with it, there is a lawyer among the dogs". F. Ross Johnson, the former CEO of Nabisco, was once quoted as saying, "The only thing I expect out of lawyers is that they be back in their coffins by sunup". And, of course, there is the rallying cry of all who look with disdain upon lawyers and the legal profession, taken from Shakespeare's Henry VI, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" (a quote which is actually complimentary to the importance of law in society, but is frequently taken out of context - but that is an essay for another day).

With the dawn of modern cinema has come a new medium through which society can express its dislike for lawyers and their ilk. Although I am sure that they are out there, I can count on one hand the films that I have seen that portray lawyers in a favourable light. And the films that portray lawyers in an unfavourable light? Well, let us take a look - there are the films that portray lawyers as devils ("The Devil's Advocate"), as alcoholics ("The Verdict"), as vain ("Primal Fear") and, of course, as morally bankrupt ("Intolerable Cruelty"). In other words, the annals of cinema are rife with films that have embraced the "wicked lawyer" stereotype.

The latest addition to the list of "lawyer films" is Michael Clayton, a film written and directed by Tony Gilroy (who apparently must have had his own bad lawyer experience, since he also wrote "The Devil's Advocate") and starring George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack and Tom Wilkinson.

Michael Clayton tells the story of its title character (George Clooney), a one-time prosecutor who is working as a "fixer" at a large American corporate defence firm. As the firm's "fixer", he is delegated all manner of unpalatable tasks, from assisting wayward clients who find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal law, to guiding the firm's lawyers back to the flock when they fall astray. When he is asked to redress the fallout arising from the apparent mental breakdown of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the firm's top litigator, he discovers that Edens is carrying a secret that could destroy the firm's biggest case at a time when the firm can least afford the revelation. When the secret threatens to destroy Clayton himself, he is forced to examine his own priorities and to choose which morally ambiguous path he should follow.

Now, let me say at the outset that, in spite of Tony Gilroy's assertion during the press interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival that his screenplay was loosely based in fact following several months of research, I have yet, in almost eleven years of legal practice, to come across anyone remotely resembling Michael Clayton. Perhaps I am naive and such people do exist within large firms of hundreds of lawyers. Perhaps the film accurately depicts how corporate America conducts its legal defence work. While it certainly makes an interesting story, I have yet to meet a law firm, "fixer", or a lawyer prepared to go to the lengths employed by Tilda Swinton's character to win a case.

That is not to say that there is no truth in the story created by Gilroy. The late-night phone calls from clients caught in life-altering situations, the private turmoils of people working in a very public profession, the "behind the scene" issues that are a component of many cases and the morally ambiguous decisions with which lawyers occasionally find themselves confronted all rang true to me as I watched this film.

While I suspect that there was some artistic licence involved in the development of the screenplay, I have to say that this was one of the most well-written films that I have seen this year. Both the story and the dialogue were interesting and challenging. While written as a drama, the film was taut and suspenseful and ended in a way that I would never have predicted.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that I will be surprised if Michael Clayton does not receive some recognition during Oscar season. It is one of the few films that I have seen this year that offers a perfect marriage between a strong script, thoughtful directing and superb acting performances. Gilroy's use of imagery to create mood was outstanding - the cold, bitter, barren landscapes of the film created a chill that I carried throughout the film. Even George Clooney's facial hair was used to convey the mood of his character.

The acting performances in this film were nothing short of award-worthy. George Clooney delivers his best performance since his Oscar-winning role in Syriana. Tom Wilkinson also delivers an emotionally-charged performance that may also earn him his second career Oscar nomination. Sydney Pollack was so persuasive that I half expected to see him practising as a lawyer during my next appearance in Motions Court. Tilda Swinton was excellent with the material that she was given, although if I had one criticism it would be the fact that her character is not as well developed as one would expect for someone who is a lynchpin in the story.

Michael Clayton is not a film for everyone. The story is not neatly handed to the audience, but instead requires the viewer's undivided attention to dialogue and details. For their attention, however, the audience is rewarded with a film that is both engrossing and thought-provoking. I enjoyed this film so much that, after seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival, I went to see it again this week in Timmins. It is that good.

Michael Clayton is also not a film that is likely to change anyone's perception of the legal profession. It is a brutally unforgiving tale about the dark side of one law firm's defence of a high-profile corporate class action lawsuit. Far from from being warm and fuzzy, it is a film that is unlikely to cause people to run out and hug their lawyers. Unless, of course, their lawyers look like George Clooney.

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