This turbulent decade has borne out the old adage that good art arises out of bad times. While the peace and prosperity of the late nineties brought us toothless best picture winners like “Titanic” and “Shakespeare in Love,” (Damn you Bill Clinton!), todayâ€™s films roil with a new, bracing cynicism. The frenetically, paranoid “Syriana” held up a mirror to Americaâ€™s addiction to oil and the Middle East entanglements that it has engendered. “Good Night and Good Luck” was a stinging indictment of the Post-September 11 press and its failure to confront a government running rough-shod over the rights of its people. “Hostelâ€™s” effective torture porn took its brutal set pieces from the disturbing images that seeped out of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Now writer-director Tony Gilroyâ€™s sharp, new drama “Michael Clayton takes on corporate avarice in the new millenium. George Clooney plays the titular character, a “fixer”” at a top law firm who cleans up the legal messes caused by his elite clients. The self-loathing Clayton slumps through life, sickened by the knowledge that every institution meant to protect us can be short-circuited to please the powerful.
When Claytonâ€™s friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior partner at the firm, goes off his anti-psychotic medication, he threatens to expose a major corporate client that sold cancer-causing pesticides and is now enmeshed in a massive class action lawsuit. When Clayton is summoned to â€œhandleâ€ the situation, Edens refuses to back down, saying that torpedoing the corporate client and avenging its victims is his only path to redemption.
The filmâ€™s antagonist is not an individual or even a corporation. Instead, Gilroy targets the hyper-competitive economic era in which we all live and the corrosive effects of its “win at all costs” ethos. The closest we get to a villain is Karen Crowder (the wonderfully twitchy Tilda Swinton), the corporate clientâ€™s legal counsel. But sheâ€™s a mess, too. The first time we see Crowder, she is suffering from a panic attack in a restroom stall. She clings to her status as a hot shot executive, even as she feels her soul slipping from her fingertips. As she approves increasingly aggressive methods to rein in Edens, Clayton is forced to decide between protecting his friend and serving his masters.
Clooney gives the best performance of his career. Seeming to be as tired of his “Danny Ocean” smirk as the rest of us, he exposes a wounded vulnerability that he rarely exhibits onscreen.
And Wilkinson is fantastic. He is charged with simultaneously playing a nut job and the filmâ€™s moral center. He shifts seamlessly from incoherent ramblings to spot-on moral pronouncements without losing the audienceâ€™s sympathy.
I hope that you appreciate this newly vital period of filmmaking, because thereâ€™s no guarantee it will last. While I would welcome a new President, an end to the war, and a full reinstatement of the Bill of Rights, I am not looking forward to the return of the Merchant Ivory film.