Some of the best movies are those that present very ordinary stories in an extraordinary way. Michael Clayton starring Oscar winner George Clooney is such a movie. It is a simple story of an underdog taking on a giant of an enemy.
To its benefit, the movie doesn`t pander to the populist sentiment but instead focuses on the details of the conflict and the degrees of changes the characters go through.
Michael is a lawyer working with a firm where his specialty is cleaning up legal messes of the rich before they become public. The first half hour of the movie is plodding as it sets up the plot with numerous details. We are only sucked into the story when an attempt has been made on Michael`s life. From there we are taken back to four days ago and find out that Michael`s firm U/North is about to settle a controversial case out of court in its promotion of cancer-causing weed-killers.
Michael`s colleague and friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has been working on the case but has a very public breakdown. He threatens to expose the firm and they try to hush him. Michael is soon dispatched to calm Arthur and the firm hires no nonsense, tough, methodical counsel (Tilda Swinton) to avoid a blow-up.
The movie is directed by Tony Gilroy and he has written the screenplay as well. His past experience includes writing the screenplays for the Bourne movies and this is his first directorial venture.
Gilroy clearly understands characters. The actors all get meaty parts and they are brilliant in their execution. The strongest point of the movie is probably Clooney`s performance. He completely understands the material and though he is a superstar, he serves the story and reins in his performance.
He personifies quiet intensity and always remains just below the surface without ever bursting out awkwardly or emotionally. His character is also flawed and his back story with the gambling debts, failed marriage and the son he is trying to win over, seems a little far fetched and tacked on. But he rises above that and his character`s nobility is evident in every scene.
Swinton and Wilkinson put in stellar performances. Swinton plays the tightly wound spinster Karen Crowder who has absolutely no social life. Even in her personal moments, we find her rehearsing her lines she has to present in the case. She is so wound up we expect her to unravel any minute. Swinton manages to keep us on edge.
Wilkinson has a little bit more of a difficult role to work with. We get to see the method behind the madness and the work he has put in to present a credible case.
At times the movie feels like it is trying to crawl out from the heap of details it is buried under. It seems so intent on telling the story that it can feel flat at times. It doesn`t try to be innovative.
Michael Clayon puts great faith in its story and characters. For those who are tired of the cliché populist pap of the past, Michael Clayton is a refreshing break even if it strives too hard to be noble at times.