Thursday, November 08, 2007

Clooney v. Clayton, Part 2

Several days ago I wrote a review of the movie Michael Clayton. In that post (which can be found here), I promised to write a series of sequel posts on law practice issues raised by the movie. This is the first of those sequel posts. Today's topic is none other than cinematic hyperbole.

Specifically, the basic thesis of this post is that the movie is all about HYPERBOLE!

OK, so that statement itself is hyperbolic. But in an important sense, the movie is indeed hyperbolic and filled with archtypes. Which is to say that it is a typical movie. At its core, the film is about a guy who is in a big law firm, who feels trapped in his job, is good at it but no longer has any passion for it, has perhaps backed into his career specialty, and is desperate to get out. In my opinion, that is the story of thousands of lawyers nationwide. To be quite honest, it was, in a way, my story a few years ago.

When experienced on the personal level, this sort of feeling is incredibly compelling, and there is more than a little anguish involved. And I am sure that in virtually every screening of this film there has been at least one lawyer sitting in the audience who knew exactly how Clayton felt. I suspect that some of this blog's readers do, too. But for the rest of the audience, being paid big bucks and not being happy just isn't that compelling of a story. And to be fair, who would want to go see a melodrama in which the protagonist sits at a desk for 14 hours a day? If I wanted that sort of entertainment, I could get it for free at any big law firm.

So in Michael Clayton, the story is far sexier. Clayton is not just a lawyer. He's a "fixer" who does the firm's dirty work. And he's not a partner, so he is at the beck and call of the firm's big dogs. And he's in debt, and apparently to shady financiers. And he has a gambling problem of some sort. And he'd be a lot happier if he were a prosecutor, like he used to be, making a lot less money. And to top it all off, there's murder, and a car bombing too.

All of which is to say that Michael Clayton does not represent a typical day at the office. But the exaggerations are intended, as they usually are, to amp things up in a way that makes the story more accessible, and perhaps even more understandable, to the general public. Again, in this sense the movie is no different than many other movies and TV shows. Who wants to watch a medical drama in which the doctors mostly scrub their hands and dictate reports? What about a cop show in which firearms are never drawn? Or science fiction with no aliens?

In this sense, then, Michael Clayton is best viewed as an accurate identifier of the broad theme of entrapment that pervades US big law firm culture. Here is a guy who is good at what he does but wants out, and does not know quite how to achieve the exit. The details of his predicament, as exciting as they are, are little more than window dressing for this all too common dilemma.

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