Human beings are entirely visual creatures: ninety-five percent of information we intake from our environment comes through our eyes, or so it is said. I just finished watching Michael Clayton, and can’t help noticing voices, instead of visually-pleasing sceneries.
It is a George Clooney movie nominated for 7 Oscars including the Best Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actress. Tilda Swinton won a deserving Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a corrupt corporate lawyer Karen Crowder, whose cold veneer hides an insecure feeling about her place in highly-competitive cut-throat world of corporations.
However, the film is not anti-corporate; it is the story of people finding their voices and their true place, and their true values in the society. The inclusion of corrupt U-North, an agriculture corporation whose herbicide has unforeseen carcinogenic effects is merely secondary to three voices that guide the narrative.
There was the voice of Michael (Clooney), the fixer (one who takes care of unsavory conditions in law) who is in deep financial troubles for his gambling; the voice of his mentor Arthur, who switched sides to defend plaintiffs who he is supposed to be antagonizing, and the voice of Michael’s son, the innocent guileless voice absorbed in a fantasy world, which became a guiding light for the entire movie.
Yes, Arthur switches sides, without explanation. His nostalgic voice sometimes laments, sometimes proclaims, sometimes denounces his life, his ambitions and his goals. It is a voice disturbed by the life of a fixer he chose—the similar life like which is being lead by Clayton at the present. Using his limited time and sanity, Arthur tries to dissuade Michael from falling into the same pitfalls as he did.
The movie is neither a legal thriller nor a political thriller; it is not even a thriller at all. The stories from the fantasy world of Michael’s son’s book guide the characters to break free of their unwitting alliances to people with whom they identify; however, whether the people who do so are rewarded remains the other side of the coin. As the late lamented Sidney Pollack who plays Clooney’s superior notes in the movie, people like Arthur and Michael created unique niches for themselves—niches only them can create, and niches from which they can’t run away.
The film has no definite set of morals: it has a bad corporation at the bully pulpit, but the film in no Erin Brockovich. It is likewise named Michael Clayton, and centers on Michael’s world view, and his moral transformation (more like circular shift in morality in fact, since the film itself loops around the narrative) from a tool of his firm to a tool answerable to none but himself. In other words, at the end of the movie, from a mouth that spoke others’ words emerge his own thoughts and his own beliefs.
A good movie never coerces a viewer to agree with it. It neither blatantly puts its message on the table either. Michael Clayton is not only grand but also great because it informs the viewers that it is a movie with a message from the opening monologue, but does not reveal its full plot until well forty minutes into the movie. The movie fittingly ends with a long shot of Michael in a taxi, which ends with his knowing smirk towards the camera. It is as if he is mocking the audience who thinks it understands the message, but in fact not.