Friday, November 02, 2007

Clooney v. Clayton

When I started Law Career Blog, I made a solemn pledge to myself: I would review every movie in which the law and George Clooney played major parts. I started with a review of Syriana in 2005, which is located here. (The excellent Good Night and Good Luck just missed the cut; it came out right before I started this blog.) And then I stumbled, perhaps, when I did not review The Good German or Ocean's Thirteen. (It might have something to do with not having seen them yet--but they are in my Netflix queue. So much for timeliness.)

So I suppose I should recast my solemn pledge: I will review every movie in which the law and George Clooney play major roles, and about which I have something to say. That's a promise I can keep. And Clooney's latest, Michael Clayton, certainly gives me a lot to talk about.

So much, in fact, that instead of posting a single review, I will write a series of posts about the movie. This first post will be a general review; the posts that follow will focus in greater detail on various themes or issues in the movie that I found interesting.

My Review of Michael Clayton

In Michael Clayton, Clooney plays a lawyer at a big New York law firm who specializes in being a "fixer"--a lawyer who solves messy problems for his law firm. This means that his area of practice specialization is not a particular subject area per se. Rather, it consists of the skill of resolving awkward problems in a quiet, covert (but not necessarily unlawful) fashion. While it's a living, it's not a particularly rewarding one. And then Clayton discovers (for reasons I will not go into) that the firms' biggest client has been involved in a very serious, very illegal, very deadly cover-up. Clayton is thus faced with a choice: does he help the firm, or does he reveal the client's wrongdoing? Add to this the fact that Clayton (a) is not actually a partner in the firm (he is "of counsel" to the firm, with a contract that might or might not be renewed), (b) was originally a prosecutor (i.e., used to "do the right thing," but now works for the big evil law firm), and (c) is heavily in debt because he invested, not too wisely, in a restaurant that went belly-up, and you have the makings of classic drama. Does Clayton do what he needs to do to survive, regardless of what is right? Or does he perhaps sacrifice himself in the name of justice?

If this sounds like a somewhat conventional thriller, well, that is exactly how it struck me. Which is not to say it's a bad movie. It's not. It's actually quite good in many ways. It captures some of the feel of law practice at a big firm, and it features excellent performances by Tom Wilkinson as a bipolar attorney, Tilda Swinton as an evil (and perhaps slightly incompetent) in-house lawyer, Sydney Pollack as a corner office partner (my favorite character in the film), and Michael O'Keefe as a jerk of a junior partner (my second favorite character in the film). (All bios are available through IMBD's website for the film.)

On the other hand, the whole movie seemed less than the sum of its excellent parts--very good, but not great, as if it were trying to be more than it is. Which is not uncommon for serious-minded movies. After all, when someone is making a "message" movie, will people go see it if the message is "Gee, this is something you perhaps should think about?" Or are they more likely to see it if the message/issues cut directly to the heart and soul of society? Such as, say, the rule of law and how money and power might be above the law? Look at the movie poster for Michael Clayton and you have your obvious answer: the poster trumpets that "The Truth can be Adjusted," not that "Working for a Law Firm can be Not So Fun Sometimes." So in this manner, the movie overreaches a bit. (More on this in a subsequent post.)

Yet despite this--on the third hand, I suppose--I have been thinking about the movie a lot since I saw it. And that means that it struck some chords deep within me, despite my inherent cynicism. These chords will be the subjects of my posts over the next several days. Please stay tuned.


Corey said...

It's a shame you missed Intolerable Cruelty (2003) as well. :)

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Good one. I actually caught a bit of that the other day on cable TV. Basic theme seems to be the law makes you silly.