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March 3, 2008 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

Michael Clayton

What to expect of Michael Clayton? Oscar-nominated (though not Oscar-winning) for Best Picture, with a stellar cast (George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack) and produced by Steven Soderbergh, it promised much in terms of artistic merit. Focusing on corporate deviancy and greed, it even looked interesting. Clooney plays Michael Clayton, the in house ‘fixer’ at a large New York law firm. Michael’s job is to extricate the firm from all kinds of problems ranging from the partners’ kids’ drug convictions to hit and run incidents perpetrated by important clients. The firm has been successfully delaying a class action against its corporate giant client U-North, a manufacturer whose product has killed hundreds of small farmers. This all turns pear-shaped when the litigation partner (Wilkinson) stops taking his lithium and goes berserk, threatening to give very damaging information to the other side before disappearing. Michael, as usual, is on damage control duty.

I thought Michael Clayton had several failings. First up was that the propaganda oversold the film by concentrating on Michael’s role as a high-flying corporate ‘fixer’ and the ethical dilemmas which arise from his role. However, we don’t see him fix anything; he merely tries to resolve the situation by shouting at Wilkinson. One of the best lecturers I’ve had (John Leslie in the politics department – you should take his papers, and no, I’m not related) taught me to start essays with the ‘so what?’ question – tell your readers why your topic important enough to merit their attention. This lesson holds for films. Writer/director Tony Gilroy threw away the opportunity to grab his audience’s attention by showing just what Michael can do and why it is so bad that the powerful are able to get away with it. Another thing that irked me was how everyone apart from the immediate culprits emerged squeaky-clean. The law firm partners were smart but gentlemanly, and the top dog at U-North was downright fatherly (in a non-scary paedophile way). In the post-Enron era (the Enron situation would not have been possible without the collusion of Enron’s executives, bankers, accountants and lawyers) this is unrealistic to the point that it seems that Gilroy is afraid to offend corporate America. On top of this, the film wasn’t that interesting; the middle part was downright boring. Further, it was littered with clichés – Michael’s cute and clever son from a broken marriage springs to mind.

Although some of the sequencing, the grainy blue cinematography, and the acting in general were masterful (particularly Tilda Swinton, who, as usual, steals every scene and deserved her Oscar), the film left me cold. The corporate greed exhibited in Michael Clayton is very much in the ‘been there, done that’ category, and it’s been done better elsewhere to boot.


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