Michael Clayton (George Clooney) makes good money at Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, one of those vast Manhattan law factories, but he's never made partner. And is unlikely to do so. Partly that's a matter of class. He's a cop's son and the product of the Fordham Law school, not Yale or Harvard. Partly it's a matter of his legal or should we say marginally illegal? services to the firm. He is its smooth, cool fixer, the guy who cleans up the messes hit-and-run driving cases, ugly divorces, immigration muddles in which the firm's otherwise respectable clients find themselves embroiled. The partners are grateful for his services, and don't care to know too much about his methods. Or his extra-curricular activities, which include a gambling habit and an $80,000 debt to the mob, who lent him money for a bar that his feckless brother ran into the ground.
He's a very good character, one we've not previously encountered at the movies, and Clooney plays him with a wonderfully calm subtlety. The man never sweats or, for that matter, raises his voice when the pressure is on him, which it almost always is. At most, he registers anxiety with an almost imperceptible flicker of his eyes. When we meet him, the firm's leading litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has suffered a serious meltdown in Milwaukee in the the midst of taking a deposition he has stripped naked and run out babbling into a snowy parking lot. Arthur has been defending an Agrochemical giant called U/North in a class action suit and has discovered a document that proves one of Agrochemical's products has, indeed, fatally poisoned a large number of its customers. He has wasted a decade of his life and more billable hours on the case than anyone can calculate and he wants to blow the whistle on U/North. Its very tense and ambitious chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) can't let that happen. And neither can Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the law firm's senior partner, who has a merger on his mind.
Michael Clayton, written and directed by Tony Gilroy (who wrote a couple of the Bourne movies), plays into a pretty common form of contemporary American paranoia. Everyone fears a legal letter from a firm like Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, which typically signifies lots of unpleasant prospects: that someone is willing to spend millions to go after you, that even if, eventually, you prevail, the cost of defending yourself will ruin you and that law firms and their big-time clients will not be entirely scrupulous in pursuing their case. Sure enough, murderous private detectives are soon deployed to protect U/North's nefarious interests.
The film is more patient than thrilling in developing its multi-layered plot, and, frankly, there are elements in it notably something to do with a kid's book that Michael's son induces Arthur Edens to read that seemed to me rather murky. Or incompletely developed. But there's still something deeply absorbing about Michael Clayton, which stems largely from the way it allows its characters their quirks. You believe Arthur's temporary insanity, which is a matter of decent instincts overriding his professionalism. You believe that Pollack's apparent toughness is something of a shell. You sense a curious (and not unsympathetic) naivety in Swinton's corporate lawyer, especially in the scenes where, in private, she works the human kinks out of her public statements ensuring that they remain bland and full of falsity. Above all, the film allows Clooney's character his somewhat tormented relationship with his family real depth. He has moved up and away from them, and there are resentments on both sides. Yet blood is thicker than the watery morality he has embraced in his maturity. And eventually it is family that aids in rescuing him from defeated cynicism.
Michael Clayton is not an exercise in high-tension energy; you'll never confuse its eponymous protagonist with Jason Bourne. But it does have enough of a melodramatic pulse to keep you engaged in its story and, better than that, it is full of plausible characters who are capable of surprising and surpassing your expectations.