Michael Clayton (2007) is not a film about good people. George Clooney, in the title role, is the "fixer" of a high-powered Manhattan law firm. He takes care of the embarassments his colleagues sometimes find themselves in—hit-and-run, illicit affair, etc—and he's the best at removing any evidence of personal wrongdoing by the firm and their loved ones. Long ago Michael traded in his aspirations of being a change-making trial lawyer for this position, and he is now content to lurk on the sidelines of the firm and use his paycheck to take care of his alimony payments and fuel his gambling addiction.
Michael has few friends but one of them is Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the firm's star shark. Edens is six years into a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit: defending the firm's biggest client, a chemical company accused of knowingly manufacturing a product containing deadly carcinogens.
Michael gets word that Arthur went nuts during a routine deposition: screaming fire-and-brimstone proclamations about the evils of his own client and stripping naked in front of plantiffs and colleagues in the conference room. And sure enough, Arthur is off his meds again—the bipolar disorder that caused his outburst is known only to Michael and a few others. Michael is familiar with how to bring Arthur down from his mania, and he tries to help his friend regain his balance so the case for the defense can proceed.
But Arthur has other plans. It's those plans that set into motion a chain of events, irrevocable and devastating, which cause Michael to finally confront the choices he's made in life and frantically find a path toward salvation.
The film is full of people who have compromised any notion of morality or integrity, with justifications ranging from pragmatism to desperation. Michael's boss Marty (played by Sydney Pollack) is the most content of these characters. Despite the fact that he heads a law firm devoted to shielding corporations from responsibility, he is refreshingly free of crisis, with no qualms about who he is and what he's doing. In a argument with Michael he points out, "Fifteen years in and I gotta tell you how we pay the rent? You know exactly what you are."
Lead counsel for the chemical company is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who is someone who works very hard to project an image of a woman completely in control of her demeanor. In public, she's at ease in any situation and always ready with the correct choice of words. In private, she rehearses her polished speeches again and again and hides her breakdowns in the ladies' room. As things with the lawsuit begin to go sideways after Arthur's outburst, Karen is brought into the forefront as the real "fixer" in this story—the person who has to decide in the cost/benefit anaylsis of this situation who and what is expendable.
Although this film deals in grim truths, it is not a "message" picture meant to expose the banality of evil or corporate greed. Instead, Michael Clayton sticks to the story at hand and tells a thrilling tale complete with one of the best dénouements of modern film making. Writer/director Tony Gilroy assumes that the audience already has a jaded view of corporations and their legal counsel—of course these companies will make callous decisions about the public's well-being and of course their lawyers will try to cover it up. So what is surprising about Michael Clayton is the humanity that Gilroy imbues into all of his characters, allowing them the depth of spirit required to decide their own fate, whether it be salvation or damnation.
Michael Clayton is available on DVD, and streaming via Cinemax, iTunes, and Vudu