I remember rather clearly the night that I saw Michael Clayton. It was a bitterly cold night, in fact the night before a snowstorm. (I watched the film late in its run.) It was wet, dark, and unpleasant. I escaped into the dollar theater to cross this film off my list of Oscar films I had to see. I needed an escape. I found one.
When I refer to Michael Clayton as a “popcorn movie,” it’s tempting to read that as a dismissal of the film. It was a serious, sober film. It was nominated for several oscars and won one. It ranked sky high on best of the year lists. Everything about the film screams serious. It shouldn’t be reduced to just “a fun escape.”
The thing is, I’m not calling Michael Clayton a popcorn movie as a slight on the film but rather a celebration of escapist films which we often forget can include films for adults. This is a supremely well made film that at day’s end serves about the same function as Transformers. It dazzles us with techniques while playing in familiar tropes.
The movie is, to be blunt, a rather simplistic one. Yes, the film wants you to think the title character is ethically ambiguous but is he really? He’s cynical about his job and takes to doing the right thing rather easily. The film also makes it incredibly easy to hate the villains, that old standby of an eeeevil corporation poisoning innocents and the vicious lawyers representing them. This is not complicated stuff.
And that’s kind of a relief for a viewer. Look at the climate in 2007 after all. The Bush years were headed to a close. The economy was collapsing dramatically. An election season was on. The rest of the films targeting older viewers tended to be either oppressively bleak (No Country For Old Men), agonizingly political (Rendition/Lions For Lambs/In The Valley of Elah), or not really for adults (the horror wave.) Here was a popcorn movie that required following the plot.
What makes Michael Clayton so brilliant then isn’t what it says but how it says it. The film marked the directorial debut of veteran writer Tony Gilroy. He benefited strongly from a wealth of talent aiding him including a great cast, DP Robert Elswit, and sleek editing by his brother John Gilroy but his best weapon is his script. This is by far and away one of the tightest scripts I’ve read. It moves compulsively with incredible dialogue that’s a joy to listen to. It’s one I actually made a point to buy a hard copy of just to study.
It’s an utterly fantastic film to look at. Everything about the film suggests cold. It’s filled with lots of shots in early morning. Elswit, a veteran of such films as Boogie Nights and Good Night and Good Luck, gives everything a starkness in his lighting. When we’re inside, it’s almost all the peak of opulence but it’s not fetishized as much as distant and unpleasant. Again, simple but damned effective.
Of course, what really makes the film hum are the performances. Sydney Pollack, in his penultimate turn, once more embodies everything wrong with higher ups as he did often in his career. Tom Wilkinson shines in a supporting turn that’s so good you forget he’s really not in the film all that long. Then there’s Tilda Swinton, cast far against type as a fairly normal version of a villainous lawyer. It’s so startling seeing her not playing weird that I’d argue she won her (richly deserved) Oscar for playing ordinary.
But this is George Clooney’s show. I’ll take all the criticism for this but Clooney by far and away gave the best lead performance of the year. No, he’s not far outside of his range playing a slickster gifted at his job, but so what? Clooney is one of the all time greats in that range and he’s just incredible here. He dominates the film in every scene he’s in, never letting you doubt he’s going to walk away on top. This is a turn akin to a great singer just belting it. Should’ve been his second Oscar.
I started this essay by arguing that the film is a popcorn film, not a “serious film.” The thing is, I don’t think the film didn’t deserve every award it got. I even think it deserved more. In a great year, I only saw two other films I thought were better. This is a piece of entertainment, and if that’s what Hollywood does then why not cite entertainment done at its best. This is a slightly forgotten film now but it deserves far better. Watch it.
Next week: I look back at Lars and the Real Girl, a staggeringly problematic film I utterly adore.