Post Millennial Malaise 13: Michael Clayton

In Which There Are No Brooms on the Horizon

In the mid to late 00’s there was a sudden, and honestly kind of surprising, boom of great movies. For a period over about two and a half years there was suddenly a consistent stream of interesting pictures gracing the screen’s of America. Flick’s that ranged from the fascinating blockbuster, new groundswell indie darling, or noted auteur stepping in to create some of their best work. For a brief window from about 06-08 it seemed like the great powers that propelled the periods like the New Hollywood and the Indie Boom of the 90’s had graced audiences with a new epoch of greatness. Of course such sentiments did not lost longer than then decade, but for a short glittering moment it seemed like it could.

It’s hard to say why this happened exactly. Perhaps it was the general political culture of America souring on the Bush regime as it entered the dregs of its second term. A realization that the rah-rah jingoism of the early part of the decade had only led to an endless quagmire of stacking disasters. Perhaps it was because of the suddenly wobbly economic situation, where once seemed firm footing for the structure of American capital was starting to be thrown into uncertainty. Perhaps it was the ebbing of the aesthetic parameters that defined the earlier part of the century, gone was the Nu-Metal and boy bands of the early 00’s, and nothing solid yet had replaced it.

I think it might be a combination of all these factors. This was a transitory period for the culture writ large, and filmmakers were kind of groping to find what would work. Some landed on the concept of smartly executed, technically proficient, and thematically interesting thrillers. Thus the world is gifted with 2007’s Michael Clayton. A sturdy piece of Hollywood production that has had a second life as a totem to a bygone era of movie making. A last hurrah of the competent film made for adult audiences at a medium scale.

Indeed perhaps the most fascinating thing about Michael Clayton now is that it has been one of the most recent movies to transition into that hallowed “don’t make them like they used to” realm. A whole swath of cineaste, film social media user, or podcast host will wax poetical about the unfussy pleasures of watching movie stars navigate a morally murky gray zone while peppering it with a few crackling scenes of dialog. There’s nary a hint of a franchise in sight, and the whole thing sprung full formed as an original concept, a piece that acts unto to itself and is all the better for it.

This totemic afterlife as representative of a bygone era adds unneeded baggage to a movie that thrives on economical storytelling and professionalism. By making a superb piece of craft into something greater one can easily rob the obvious joys that are found within. Yes, yes, its the prerogative of film social media to turn every thing into a thing (which I am doing right now), but the best state of mind to find oneself in while watching Michael Clayton is a solid, straightforward weekend sit. Drop pretenses, memes, and hagiography to view a well executed thriller that kicks at some contemporaneously interesting themes.

The movie itself deals with titular Michael Clayton (George Clooney). A fixer for a giant law firm that has a bit of a mess on his hands. Lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has gone AWOL against the firm. Threatening to expose the dangerous side effects of a product from a Monsanto like company that the group is representing. Clayton is brought in by shady corporate council Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) to keep things tamped down so the truth doesn’t get brought to the broader public. Meanwhile Clayton himself has to deal with his gambling debts, a broke restaurant, and a crumbling family. Not what you want for a professional cleaner, but Clayton is played the hand he is dealt.

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy — after decades as a Hollywood punch up artist and the single continuous factor in the successful Bourne franchise finally getting to make a movie al his own — Michael Clayton is in itself a self conscious throwback. A movie that pulls from the 70’s school of thrillers. A Cinema de Pakula if you will. One that glides by on obtuse morality and unfussy formalism. Where the technique of the thing isn’t obviously overblown until you might notice that certain shotw have been held for multiple minutes, or focus has been racked back and forth quickly multiple times.

All this throwbacky veneer does a good job of kind of blanketing the real trick of this movie. One that isn’t immediately obvious from the outside or a glancing look at the film. For all intents and purposes this is a picture of cool professionals working through their jobs to the best of their ability. Navigating a high-wire act of the legally dubious and morally unscrupulous. It’s all pretty cut and dry, until you notice that Michael Clayton, and many of his associates and enemies are actually kind of shit at what they are doing.

This revelation is pulled off with a neat little sleight of hand. The beginning ten or so minutes of the film are actually the end of the story, but this in media res maneuver isn’t obvious. Indeed the setup feels like the classic first reel of any legal thriller. The firm is going through a huge settlement process. Clayton is called forth from a gambling den to deal with a client involved in what appears to be vehicular manslaughter. Here we see Clooney smooth talk the frazzled client, using his megawatt charisma to tamp down a possibly volatile situation. Things continue apace for our hero until he suddenly stops his car looks at some horses while his vehicle explodes in the background. We are then treated to a title card revealing the time trickery, and will be informed of the events that precipitated this near death moment.

There has been a bit of a backlash to this exact structure in recent years, why do this when you can cut right to the story you want to tell? Well here it’s because Gilroy wants to mask the slipshod work of his so called professionals. To insert the viewer into semi-familiar territory and then have the scale fall from their eyes as the story unravels. We expect Clooney to be the best at his job, but what we get instead is a divorced dad crippled by debts because of a failed restaurant and a haunted history of gambling addiction. His position of cleaner is not one of coolness but one of embarrassment. He’s a man who can be bought out and do dirty deeds because he constantly has an albatross around his neck. He doesn’t have a code or sense of nobility, just moment to moment attachment to the individuals he interacts with. He doesn’t crack the problem at hand with deft skill, but mostly through sheer luck and happenstance.

This bumbling nature gets at what Gilroy pinged both from the 70’s films and the current culture of the mid aughts. Success and skill are frequently not correlated. We can imagine Deep Throat’s famous speech from All The President’s Men being equally applicable, these aren’t very bright guys and the situation did get out of hand. Yes Karen is able to pull off one successful hit in the film, but her approach to the situation is incredibly squishy and mealy-mouthed. Swinton’s icy stoicism is subsumed in nervous uncertainty. She’s supposed to be the ice cold killer, but her lips tremble, she rehearses lines, and she sweats out her fears in a bathroom stall.

This material then points to the very 2007 frame that the movie lives in. With a world of so called professionals it seems like most of them only have the ability of covering their ass after making horrible mistakes. This isn’t an explicitly political film, but one can’t help but feel the frustrations at institutions after a decade that brought us things like Enron, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the soon to be debilitating financial crisis. It’s a movie of decay glossed up in the style of the past. Something that looks approachable covering up a rotting interior.

But Gilroy know he’s still making a Hollywood movie, and he is able to magically contrive one of the best end scenes of the decade. A marvelous five or so minutes that lets Gilroy keep his cynical gumption while sending the audience out on a win. The final confrontation between Clooney and Swinton is pure movie star power and cracker jack writing. Pulling off multiple layers of deception to a concluding fist pump reveal. The fact that it takes place in a boring hotel lobby only heightens the weird catharsis. After a full two hours of nearly continuous failure Michael Clayton finally does his job well and for a good moral end.

This finale also contributes to the film’s extensive afterlife as a go to film twitter touchstone. For as much as one can extol the virtues of Wilkinson’s bread bag, or Clooney’s charisma, or Swinton’s flop sweat, this is still a crowd pleaser. One that lets you be cynical about institutions and feel good about Michael Clayton pulling out a win. Gilroy’s mastery is making sure that he, and the audience, get both. And it does feel notable that nothing quite like it has arrived from Hollywood in the intervening years.

Odds and Ends

  • This is Gilroy’s only real win behind the camera. His career as director continued with the now mostly forgotten Duplicity, and the franchise non-starter of The Bourne Legacy. He was then sent back to the punch up mines.
  • Because of the absolutely loaded movie year it’s easy to forget that Michael Clayton was pretty close to being an Oscar darling. Producing the only nominee and win for Swinton and nominations in nearly every other major category. Can’t really begrudge it when it had to fight against No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood.
  • Brian Koppelman, writer behind Rounders and Billions, makes an appearance at the poker table as a cute wink to his earlier work.
  • Just spit balling here, but I wonder if this moment of film life is so lodged in the current consciousness because it’s at the very beginning of things like social media and podcasts beginning to take hold online. I have no way to verify this, but from the perspective of a person who started listening to podcasts in 2006 it seems possible.

Nest week we begin our Kaufman twofer with the meta meta meta 2002 flick Adaptation.