erik lundegaard

Michael Clayton
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Michael Clayton (2007)

WARNING: SPOILERS

What’s nice about the title is that it makes us ask the question almost everyone in the movie asks: Who is Michael Clayton?

Chronologically:

  • Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton): Who’s this guy they’re sending here? Clayton? I never heard of him. ... Who is this guy?
  • Michael (George Clooney): I’m not the enemy. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson): Then who are you?
  • Don Jeffries (Ken Howard): What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Written byTony Gilroy
Directed byTony Gilroy
StarringGeorge Clonoey
Tilda Swinton
Tom Wilkinson
Michael O’Keefe

Michael’s brother, Gene (Sean Cullen), a cop, has a spin on this question that echoes Arthur’s spin:

You got all these cops thinking you’re a lawyer. And you got all these lawyers thinking you’re some kinda cop. You got everybody fooled, don’t you? Everybody but you. You know exactly what you are.

He does. He says it early in the movie but near the end chronologically:

I’m a janitor. ... The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.

“Michael Clayton” is about a big mess.

Good at work, bad at life

First, let me say what a pleasure it is to watch a movie as smart as this one. I had to work to keep up. I missed some of the shorthand.

Me: Wait, what’s he saying?
Patricia: That it’s a bribe; that he’s taking the money to keep quiet about Arthur and U North.
Me: Right.

Most of the characters use shorthand: Michael, Arthur, certainly Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the head of the prestigious New York law firm, Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen. (“This is news? ... Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?”) It’s not a Michael Mann style shorthand, which tends toward the working class and criminal class. It’s a white-collar shorthand. It’s for movers and shakers who can’t be bothered with extra words or with people who don’t know how the world works. It’s for a different kind of criminal class.

Unraveled, the story is pretty simple. Michael, the fixer for his firm, attempts to clean up a mess caused by Arthur Edens, the firm’s star litigator, who, in the midst of a 12-year, $3 billion class-action lawsuit—in which he and the firm have represented U North, an agrochemical firm—goes bonkers. He goes off his meds (literally) and strips down (literally) in the middle of a deposition while declaring his love for one of the plaintiffs, Anna (Merritt Wever). He becomes professionally muddled as he develops moral clarity.

That’s what Michael is trying to fix. Oddly, we don’t hear from the plaintiff’s attorneys. The folks at Kenner, Bach are mostly worried about their client, U North, run by CEO Don Jeffries and GC Karen Crowder. They’re worried about professional liability. They’re also worried that the stink from this incident will warn off a big London firm with whom they’re trying to merge. (Sidenote: According to DVD commentary from writer-director Tony Gilroy, a few scenes were filmed at the New York offices of Dewey Ballantine, which, that year, merged with LeBoeuf, Lamb to become the megafirm Dewey & LeBoeuf, which, five years later, went bankrupt. They got too big during a global recession. All mergers aren’t necessarily good ones.)

That’s what Michael is working on professionally. He’s also got his hands full personally:

  • He and his younger brother, Timmy (David Lansbury), an alcoholic, have lost their restaurant/bar, which is being auctioned off.
  • His owes $75K to people who aren’t a bank, and they want it now.
  • He’s divorced, with a kid, and he has a gambling problem.

Basically Michael is good at his job but bad at his life. He’s good at fixing other people’s problems but not his own. He enjoys gambling with everything but his career, where he’s risk-averse. Way back when, he took the easy route. He gave up litigation for fixing. He’s morally compromised, financially bankrupt, and 45. On the plus side, he looks like George Clooney.

Is it too much, by the way? An alcohol addiction and a gambling addiction? Bankruptcy and the mob? Mergers and murder? Not murder from the mob, either, but from the agrochemical company. The moneylenders are sweethearts in comparison.

Anna or the memo?

So why did Arthur begin to lose it? Two reasons. There’s Anna, whom he loves, or professes to love; and there’s a smoking gun, United Northfield Culcitate Internal Research Memorandum #229, in which an in-house scientist basically owns up to everything the plaintiffs are alleging. Their product kills.

Curious about a couple of things:

  • How did Arthur get this memo?
  • How did the plaintiff’s attorneys not find it after 12 years of discovery?
  • What did Arthur do once he found it?

Because, I assume, if you’re the defense lawyer in this situation, you bring the memo to your client. You tell them, “Look at this.” You tell them, “We’d better settle, fast.” Did he do any of this? Or was he already losing it?

More: Which came first, Anna or the memo? Anna obviously represents something clean to Arthur, just as the memo represents the dirty, dirty aspects of his job. That’s why he’s reaching out to her. He’s desperate to be clean again. I assume his need for Anna is a consequence of the awfulness of the memo but I could be wrong. Maybe he was infatuated with her first. You never know.

A bit of applause, by the way, for Tom Wilkinson. This movie was released in 2007, two years into my job as editor of a legal trade publication, and I remember thinking, “This guy is the senior litigator of a New York law firm? Please.” All of that vulnerability in his eyes? No.

Then you get the scene in the alleyway and this dialogue:

Michael, I have great affection for you and you live a rich and interesting life, but you’re a bag man, not an attorney. If your intention was to have me committed you should have kept me in Wisconsin, where the arrest report, the videotape, eyewitness reports of my inappropriate behavior, would have had jurisdictional relevance. I have no criminal record in the state of New York, and the single determining criterion for involuntary commitment is danger. “Is the defendant a danger to himself or to others?” You think you got the horses for that? Well, good luck and God bless, but I’ll tell you this: The last place you want to see me is in court.

For the last lines you see steel in his eyes. And I thought, “There’s my super lawyer.”

Anna is to Arthur as X is to Michael

Questions remain. Two anyway.

This is a movie about moving pieces in which our protagonist is mostly playing catch up. Arthur is on the move and Michael is trying to catch up to him. U North already has, in the guise of its own fixers, who aren’t as nice as ours. They murder Arthur and make it look like a suicide. Afterwards, Michael commiserates with Marty Bach at a high-end bar. He wonders if he’s partly responsible. Did he push Arthur too far? Bach goes bah, more or less. He assumes it was all an accident. He wants to say something else, something horrible, but can’t quite do it. So Michael does it for him. “We caught a lucky break,” he says.

Is that what drives Michael for the rest of the movie? That thought? Marty Bach is an interesting character, and Sidney Pollack, who may have missed his calling by becoming a director, plays the crap out of him, but he has a failing. He’s had the answers for so long he assumes he has the answers. He doesn’t He’s distant from the Arthur situation and incurious. Michael, our protagonist, can’t let it go. Arthur’s death is too convenient for everybody. Maybe, as a fixer, he can spot a dirty fix when he sees one.

So is this why he calls Anna? It’s the phone call that sets the third act in motion but he doesn’t have much of a reason to make it, does he? He’s never met Anna, he doesn’t know what she thinks of Arthur, and he’s certainly got enough troubles of his own. It’s kind of a logical glitch in the plot. This, and stopping by the field at dawn to commune with the horses. You can make arguments why he does both things, but both are more necessary to the plot than to Michael. They’re convenient.

But let’s go with it. Let’s say he makes the phone call because he can’t let go of the nagging thing inside him and he stops in the field because it’s there, it’s beautiful, it’s dawn, and there are horses. The horses are themselves. They are pure in this way that humans are not. We take on roles. As Arthur had Anna, Michael has the horses.

These two actions, which kinda sorta make sense, are related. The first sets U North’s fixers on him. (They figure out he’s figuring out Arthur didn’t kill himself.) The second rescues him from U North’s fixers. (Although as careful as they are with Arthur, they’re just as sloppy with Michael.)

But I guess I do have another question. It has to do with the $80K.

1970s movie, happy ending

Michael figures out Arthur was killed, he figures out why—all those copies of Memorandum #229—but at the office he gets the $80K from Kenner, Bach, “a bonus” it’s called, while objecting to the notion, floated by Marty Bach’s right-hand man, Barry (Michael O’Keefe), that it’s shakedown money. Yet he certainly acts as if it is, doesn’t he? He’s investigating Arthur’s death, gets the answer, then he gets the check and lets Arthur go.

He admits as much at the end, setting up Karen Crowder:

I’m not the guy you kill, I’m the guy you buy. Are you so fucking blind that you don’t even see what I am? I sold out Arthur for 80 grand. I’m your easiest problem and you’re gonna kill me?

He seems to believe this. But does he believe that Mary Bach believes this? That Marty Bach knew U North killed Arthur, Michael figured it out, so the money is keeping Michael quiet? That interpretation seems off. Or am I being naïve?

Either way, great ending. Happy ending. “Michael Clayton” strives to be a ’70s movie but it still gives us a happy ending. In the beginning Michael was morally compromised and financially bankrupt. By the end he’s financially solvent and morally assuaged. Nice trick. Plus he still looks like George Clooney. Once more around the block, cabbie, with feeling.

—September 14, 2004

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard

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