MICHAEL CLAYTON is fiction but it reeks of bitter authenticity: the intense characters and anxious situations may be created and the poisonous corporate and legal entities spinning the plot web exist for the sake of 119 minutes of entertainment drama, but we know in our gut as we watch that it’s all too sickeningly true. We also grasp that with the utter corruption of our institutions, the farce of our neutered defenses and the kamikaze spiral of our values that it’s through used-up, fed-up insiders like the title figure that anything close to justice may win out.
‘Fixer’lawyer Clayton (George Clooney at the top of his game) is tasked with getting his firms multi-year defense of an agro-giant back on track after the lead litigator (Tom Wilkinson, having a field day) apparently cracks up from the pressure of concealing the pesticide makers death-dealing lies. Clayton’s personal problems (loan shark debt, family strife) weigh on him as he finds out the depths the conglomerate and his firm are willing to plumb to prevent truth getting out.
In the mode of The Verdict and other great legal thrillers, writer-director Tony Gilroy nails a precise tempo, sleek look, crackling argument, superb casting and a smash ending. It’s superior screenwriting and a fully accomplished mission from a first-time director.
Production cost was $25,000,000 on the 2007 winner, which brought applause from reviewers and $93,000,000 at the gate. Oscar nominations went to Best Picture, Actor (Clooney), Supporting Actor (Wilkinson), Director, Screenplay and Score (James Newton Howard). Winning for Best Supporting Actress was the striking work from Tilda Swinton: her duels with Clooney bristle with cutthroat fervor, laser intellect and just beneath the skin—lurking panic.
Another sterling portrait of brass-balls certitude comes from Sydney Pollack, and in the background are Michael O’Keefe, Austin Williams, Bill Raymond, Denis O’Hare and Ken Howard. Those calmly convincing hit-men are played by Terry Serpico and Robert Prescott.