I've never been much for the so-called "legal thriller."
Films about lawyers, corrupt corporations or politicians, court rooms, the manipulation of the law - it's just not my thing.
That goes for other media too. If the book's got John Grisham's name on it I'm not even cracking it open. Shows like "Law and Order" and "The Practice" never drew much interest.
I bring all this up because the new thriller "Michael Clayton" is advertised as fitting into that whole category of entertainment. The trailers and previews made the film out to be a tale of George Clooney the Super Lawyer, straddling the lines between righteousness and corruption. The poster features an out of focus portrait of Clooney looking slightly sinister, mildly irritated, with the big red letters "The Truth Can Be Adjusted."
In all honesty the only reason I actually went and saw the picture is because it got an astonishing 90 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a popular film website that analyzes the proportion of positive and negative reviews a film receives. The other two possible films to see this weekend were "We Own the Night" and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," both of which receive much more lukewarm responses with 54 and 26 percentages respectively.
And, boy, was it ever a good decision to see "Michael Clayton."
Michael Clayton (Clooney,) the titular character of the film, is a so-called "cleaner" or "janitor." As depicted in the film, such an individual "cleans up" messy legal situations and emergencies. At the beginning of the film we get a quick introduction to Clayton's talents and life when he's called in the middle of the night to visit an important client of his law firm. The client has just hit a man with his car and fled the scene. It's Clayton's job to make the best of the horrible situation and give the man his options, or in this case, his option.
The film then jumps back a few days and introduces us to the characters we'll be exploring and the situation that entangles them. Clayton's got a particularly important mess to tidy up. For six years his law firm has defended a large corporation called U-North in a $3 billion class action lawsuit. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson,) the legendary lawyer who has been the architect of U-North's defense, is a manic depressive who has just gone off his medication, causing him to strip naked during a deposition in Milwaukee and streak across a snowy parking lot. Clayton has to get Edens under control and back on track so that U-North will not withhold the millions of dollars in legal fees it owes the law firm. And so as Clayton struggles to accomplish his mission he begins making troubling discovers about U-North and Edens.
This whole setup could very easily have become just another legal thriller. But it doesn't. In fact it's not even really a thriller so much as a drama. The reason for the film's grand success is pretty clear.
There are many routes to cinematic greatness. One of my personal favorites is greatness by way of characters. Give us a film with great characters. Give us a film with deep, fascinating, endlessly entertaining characters. Create characters that we can sink our teeth into, that we can explore, spend time with, even befriend. Give us characters we can study, and in studying, learn a little bit about ourselves. That is the supreme success of cinema - creating characters as lenses through which we come to examine our own place in the world
That's why "Michael Clayton" is such a thrill. The whole plot about the corrupt chemical corporation is not what the film is about. In a lesser film it would be. What the film is about is this group of characters in this situation and the deep questions with which it forces them - and us - to grapple. And these are questions the film never actually articulates. The filmmakers respect the audience so much that they are not going to say "OK, now we're going to have Clooney say this so you'll think about this." So the fact that it's about lawyers is pretty incidental to one's appreciation of the film.
The other half of the great character equation is having the best actors working at their peaks. And "Michael Clayton" delivers in this category too. Clooney, Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack, and Tilda Swinton all manage Oscar-level performances, especially Wilkinson as the man dancing on the line between madness and genius.
What's particularly great about character-based great films is that they have just about the highest re-watchability level of any film out there. I want to spend time with these characters, I want to analyze and appreciate them. And it takes multiple viewings to begin to understand the layers of depth and meaning in the film. Thus it's one prompting at least a second viewing in theatres and a day-it-comes-out DVD purchase. And those are, of course, the requirements for the A letter grade.