Thursday, June 30, 2011

MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007) : Lawyers and the Evil Corporate Client

The plot elements of Michael Clayton contain too much intrigue, suspense and the latest electronic spy ware to be much different than a thousand other movies that are being shown.  And it contains the sort of crowd pleading “I gotcha” ending that annoys moviegoers who are less discriminating than I am.  This is too bad because there are times when watching this movie I’m almost convinced that I’m sitting in a corporate boardroom or listening to the dialogue of two or three lawyers mapping out a case strategy.  This movie not only occasionally realistically portrays what is going on behind the scenes of a major case involving a large corporation, it almost picks up the spirit and the sentiment of the characters involved in it as well.
This is Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut.  The movie stars George Clooney as Michael Clayton, but in my opinion the best lines in the movie belong to Sidney Pollack as Marty Bach, the senior partner in a large downtown Manhattan firm named Kenner, Bach & Ledeen.  Michael works for Marty as a “fixer” or “janitor” as he calls himself because he is involved in cleaning up messes.  Marty is smart enough and good enough at what he does to not be fooled by much of anything, let alone the merits of his client’s position – the client being a manufacturer of pathogenic pesticides named U-North, that is involved in a class action lawsuit with individuals allegedly injured by their product.  Marty at one-point comments to Michael his real thoughts about the U-North lawsuit by saying: “This case stank from day one!  How do you think we pay the rent?”
So at the beginning of the movie we listen to a rambling monologue and this makes us understand immediately that someone has snapped.  That someone is a lawyer in the firm named Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), and Arthur has been working six straight years on the U-North class action sacrificing all nightlife and personal pleasure in the service of his client.  The problem is that Arthur knows the ins and outs of this lawsuit better than anyone else, and he’s suddenly become conscience-stricken upon discovering that more than 400 people have contracted cancer due to exposure to pesticides manufactured by U-North.  “I am Shiva, the God of death!” he at one point tells Michael (paraphrasing a quote once allegedly made by Oppenheimer after the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima).  Arthur’s breakdown goes a bit too far when he disrobes during a videotaped deposition of one of the class members and then starts begging her for forgiveness for what his client, U-North, has done to her.  Needless to say, the inside counsel for U-North, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is mortified by the turn of events, so Michael is called in by Marty to do the cleanup job.
Now Karen is an interesting one.  She’s insecure almost to a neurotic degree and almost goes into convulsions preparing for meetings.  Her two assets as far as U-North is concerned are the long hours of preparation she puts into doing her job, and her willingness to please her supervisors towards any end.  The latter trait ends up being her undoing because she’s willing to take every measure to prevent U-North’s reputation ever from being besmirched.  She’s unimpressed with Michael (whatever assurances that Marty may give her that Michael is best at what he does), and decides she needs to take matters into her own hands.  Unfortunately, this is where realism of the movie ends and the bogus intrigue begins.  Karen hires some professionals to do surveillance work upon Arthur’s apartment and, when they discover Arthur’s intention to sabotage the class action, Karen orders that the hit men have Arthur murdered (they do this by making it appear like Arthur accidentally overdosed on drugs).  However, Karen vastly underrated Michael, as Michael is the only one to figure out that this was no accident.  Karen then also attempts to have Michael killed after it’s discovered that Michael is in possession of materials that Arthur was going to turn over to the other side.  After the unsuccessful hit attempt, Michael confronts Karen, gets her to unknowingly confess what she had attempted to do over a cell phone, and the cops (including one officer who happens to be Michael’s brother) come in and arrest all the evil executives at U-North.
There are also a number of meaningless subplots involved.  For example, Michael has a gambling problem and owes a debt of $75,000 resulting from a card game and bad business investment, thus forcing Michael to put long hours into the firm doing a job he does not believe in.  Michael is a single parent of a young son that he adores.  Michael has another brother who drinks too much.  These subplots are so casually thrown into the movie that we don’t pay much attention to them.  The only thing important to remember in relation to these subplots is that Michael is struggling to make a life for himself outside of his life at the law firm.
Michael Clayton is significant as a character study of a certain subculture in our society that’s probably not well understood.  Lawyers receive a bad reputation for their profession primarily because they do not view circumstances in terms of one side is good and the other side is bad.  There is a good and bad to every side of every case or else there wouldn’t be any lawsuits.  Every competent lawyer needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his every case in order to win.  The image of the crusading lawyer is good stuff for television drama, but it contains little connection with reality.  There really are no winners in a court of law.  Lawyers neither have the time nor the money to pick and choose every case to be exactly how they desire it.  And more often than not, a lawyer is even sympathetic towards those on the other side.  They just happen to be a bit more sympathetic towards the side they represent.  Sometimes this could just be a matter of who is being paid by whom, but it can also be tied up in the belief that every side deserves an advocate – just as every side has its attributes.
As is shown in Michael Clayton, lawyers often work long hours and are subject to human failings.  The failings in this movie just happen to be a bit more dramatic than any I’ve ever observed, though breakdowns, addictions, and crisis’ of conscience among attorneys are not uncommon.  Most dramas portray lawyers as immaculately polished in their deliveries and smooth in their interactions with others.  I’ve almost never seen this in real life.  For the most part, litigations take so many unanticipated turns that lawyers blunder from one motion or hearing to another without ever particularly impressing their clients.  Yet there are very good attorneys out there that go largely unnoticed because they have the discipline to think for themselves and not be intimidated by the opinions of others.  And there are bad attorneys who just go through the motions or, worse, are so wrapped up in their own narrow perspective of the case that they represent that they fail to take into account that a jury or a judge may see things differently.  Sidney Pollack as Marty Bach believably comes across in Michael Clayton as the rare attorney who understands the entire landscape (his first line in the movie when he addresses a reporter on the telephone reveals his silent reserve).  That he may be greedy points more to his defects as a person rather than his ability as a lawyer.  Greed is not a vice relegated to lawyers only.  And Tilda Swinton (whose acting surpasses everyone but Pollack’s in this movie) as Karen Crowder exemplifies the more common type of lawyer who does not appreciate the limitations of her own case or even understand that there is only so much she can do to prevent catastrophe from coming down upon her client.  There are attorneys like Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens (in his hammed up role), though generally they only tend to be eloquent in their own minds and usually become more pathetic than effective after the personal problems in their lives become noticeable.  And there are attorneys like Michael Clayton (adequately acted by George Clooney) who can be very effective at their jobs so long as they don’t talk (and smirk) too much.
Also, there are class actions like the one in Michael Clayton brought against corporations almost every day.  And if the death of hundreds of people becomes a circumstance (even if not by specific design and which unfortunately sometimes does occur), it probably could be the responsibility of a corporation.  Many of these class actions against corporations are settled for little compensation for the plaintiffs involved.  It must be noted, however, that Hollywood has not quite gotten a handle on the notion that corporations can provide benefits to society such as a thing called employment.  And unlike what happens with U-North in Michael Clayton, corporations almost never open themselves up to criminal liability as well as civil liability by doing something stupid like trying to have an attorney murdered.  Billions of dollars in assets gives the corporations lots of leverage to influence or even silence individuals by more effective legal (if not ethical) methods than overt criminal behavior.  They can hire the best lawyers, create the best advertisements, and employ the best lobbyists to get the job done without having to hire a hit man.  One is probably not going to bring down an entire corporation as easily as what occurred in Michael Clayton in any case. 
Michael Clayton was disappointing because it was a good movie that could easily have been done up much better.  If it would have stuck to the internal working of the attorneys and left it up to television dramas to add all of the extracurricular activity, we could have seen the best courtroom drama since ‘Breaker’ Morant was released in 1979.  Instead, we have a movie slightly better than Erin Brockovich – the crusading legal assistant who dressed like a streetwalker.  Hollywood will not back up a movie whose entire intrigue is based upon intelligent depictions of real life.  Instead, they require sensationalism to be thrown in hopes of drawing in a larger audience.  Here, in Michael Clayton, it didn’t work.  Unfortunately and even so, Michael Clayton is still one of the best movies of 2007.
December 3, 2007
 © Robert S. Miller 2007