"Michael. Dear Michael. Of course it's you, who else could they send, who else could be trusted? I... I know it's a long way and you're ready to go to work... all I'm saying is just wait, just... just wait and please just hear me out because this is not an episode, relapse, ... I'm begging you Michael. I'm begging you. Try to make believe this is not just madness because this is not just madness." So begins Michael Clayton. These are the terrific opening lines spoken in an urgent, pleading manner by Tom Wilkinson playing Arthur Edens, one of the senior partners in the large law firm of Kenner, Back and Odeen. The opening sucks you into this intelligent thriller set against the world of corporate law-suits, and you wonder where it is going, what is happening.
We meet Michael Clayton (George Clooney) playing a game of high-stakes poker in a dark warehouse late at night. He gets called out to the home of a client of the law firm who has committed a hit-and-run. Clayton is sent as the fixer, to solve this situation. But we learn here that he cannot fix everything. There are some things too messed up, too black and white to be fixed by him. But Clayton is not really a fixer, as he says, he is a janitor, a bag man, sent out by the top dogs in the firm to clean up messes.
As Clayton goes to survey the scene, his car is blown up and this raises the plotline question of who is trying to kill him and why. From here, the movie moves back four days to pick up and tell the story. It is a story of the firm defending a huge multibillion dollar company biochemical U-north. They are in the middle of a class-action lawsuit because their product has poisoned the water of multiple farmers' lands and homes, causing death and devastation. Of course, they deny all. Edens job was to defend them to the hilt. That is, until he saw the truth.
After an apparent manic-depressive episode, Edens sees the truth and the truth sets him free. He literally unclothes himself to get rid of the filth and lies that are associated with his business suit, and is reborn. But in the 21st century and in the hands of a good law firm, the truth can be adjusted. That is his job that he can no longer do. He now sees the firm as an insidious corporation living as a parasite off the back of an evil client that is destroying creation and humanity.
The truth may have set Edens free figuratively, but this is exactly what Jesus said 2000 years ago (John 8:32). Truth will win out, and the truth Jesus spoke of will not be adjusted. Such truth is no longer truth, but a lie masquerading as truth. Though director Tony Gilroy may not have intended it, in Arthur Edens he is giving us a perfect illustration of how the truth can set us free and allow us to be spiritually reborn. In following Jesus, who is the way, the life and the truth (Jn 14:6), we can shed the filth and lies of our old life, our old self, and be reborn into a new pure life.
Eden's "conversion" is a real problem for the firm, a mess that needs a fixer, a janitor. Clayton is called in. On the other side, Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, chief counsel for U-north. Whereas Clooney brings a new spark to his acting playing the jaded and cynical lawyer who through circumstances serves his firm as a clean-up agent not a court-room lawyer, Swinton is disappointing. She plays Crowder with a workmanlike performance, not stellat. She plays this role as the white witch from The Chronicles of Narnia, though with dark hair and white pantyhose. She won the Oscar for best supporting actress, but she was not in the same stratosphere as the superb Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone.
But the movie works as Crowder faces her ethical dilemma. Edens has evidence that incriminates U-north. He is going public. What can she do? She has worked her whole career to get where she is, and she is about to lose it all. What will she do? She calls up a "contractor" whose name she has somehow obtained. And she meets him. In doing so, she slowly and surreptitiously slides down the slippery slope. She asks him for "options" she has not thought about. That is clear speech for the lawyer. She has crossed a line. Just as Brolin did in No Country for Old Men and Casey Afleck did in Gone Baby Gone (still the best movie of 2007 for its acting and engaging story), she cannot come back from this. Once committed, she has moved to the dark side. There is no redemption there.
Michael Clayton sizzles with razor-sharp dialog, though much profanity and swearing. But ultimately the climax is unconvincing. Would such a jaded character as Clayton turn down the cash he desperately desires (and needs) to act in an altruistic way? Would his cold, cold heart have been miraculously warmed by the events of four days? Somehow, I don't think so.
Yet the plot itself raises some interesting ethical questions. What are we willing to do to further our careers? Are we prepared to commit wrongs, sins, crimes if we get to the top? Have we crossed the ethical line? What about actions that are merely questionable, though not specifically wrong? Are these OK? As Christians, even simply moral people, the appearance is often as important as the actual deeds. If in doing something that is questionable, we cause someone else to do something wrong we have caused them to sin.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs