Film: Michael Clayton

August 13, 2010 |  by

directed by Tony Gilroy, 2007

I look back at the building and I had the most stunning moment of clarity. I realized that I had emerged not through the doors of Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the… the-the-the poison, the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other, larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity.”

This is the vision of Arthur Edens that begins Michael Clayton. What a vision of memes! The story of a New York lawyer who discovers an agrochemical client is knowingly selling a carcinogen, Michael Clayton is really much more: a story of awakening, of courage and the fight of the individual against the mass mind.

The heads of Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen are shown as paid servants of U-North, their agrochemical clients. It’s a growing theme in movies featuring memes (consciously or not): the powerful are servants to the more powerful, all the way up. In The Good Shepard, the powerful are “clerks, bootmakers” – in Michael Clayton, they are “janitors.”

Michael Clayton develops a new kind of hero. He doesn’t get the girl, he doesn’t even “win.” But he stands for what he believes in, especially when it’s hardest and he has nothing to gain – and in that he’s saved, redeemed. Clayton (George Clooney) is like us. Sure, he has a New York law job, but he’s divorced, in debt and has a career going nowhere. He has to choose between an $80,000 bonus (covering his debts) and exposing U-North. He’s fighting in every scene to retain his humanity, his integrity. In contrast, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) – the U-North counsel who’s given the past 12 years to her company – is lost, an empty shell.

So what is Michael Clayton saying to us? It’s saying there is power in courage – that we can do the right thing. We can be truthful. We can be strong. And even more, it hints that something is happening in the world today – a kind of individual and shared inner voice, inspiring us to reshape our lives and societies, to go beyond ourselves..

A phone call between 10-year old Henry Clayton and Arthur Edens:

Henry: All these people, they start having..the same dream.

Arthur: Do they know they’re having the same dream?

Henry: No..they think it’s just them. That maybe they’re going crazy..

Arthur: But they’re not crazy, are they?

Henry: No, it’s real. It’s really happening.

Arthur: It is happening, isn’t it? Something larger than themselves..

Michael Clayton is about the power of being more. The last shot: a silent 2½ minute closeup of Clooney in the back of a cab – wounded but victorious – is a classic of cinema.


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