'Michael Clayton' at 15: The Best Movie George Clooney Ever Made | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

‘Michael Clayton’ at 15: The Best Movie George Clooney Ever Made

George Clooney has been a movie star for 25 years now, playing iconic roles from Danny Ocean to Batman. But the best movie he’s ever been a part of is one from 2007 that was a flop at the time of its release. 

That movie was writer-director Tony Gilroy‘s Michael Clayton, in which Clooney played the title character, a “fixer” in a prestigious New York law firm. He’s the kind of lawyer who never goes to court — and yes, this is a rare lawyer movie in which not a single courtroom is glimpsed — but rather helps the firm’s rich clients out of jams. 

He’s introduced, ironically, as not doing his job as a fixer. That’s because he’s starting to have, as we later learn, a conscience about how he’s spent his life. 

It’s really unlike any other lawyer movie, and not only because of the lack of courtroom scenes. Michael Clayton owes more to the traditions of 1970s conspiracy thrillers than it does to the legal genre; it’s much more The Parallax View than The Verdict. Even so, lawyers have often said that the film nails the politics and the backbiting often seen in big-time law firms, even though those firms and their corporate clients aren’t usually known for having people killed. 

The Plot

The plot of the movie has Clooney as Clayton who, while given unique work, doesn’t get to perform most of the traditional functions of a lawyer, and is also not a partner in his firm despite working there for 17 years. As the movie begins, he’s fresh off a failed run at the bar business, after his drug-addict brother stole from the business. He’s left owing $80,000 to a loan shark (Bill Raymond, who played drug lord The Greek on The Wire).

Clayton’s firm, whose senior partner is Marty (played by the late, great director and actor Sydney Pollack, who died of cancer the following year), has spent years representing an evil corporation called UNorth, which is being sued by a group of farmers who were poisoned. Their general counsel is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, who won an Oscar for her chilling performance in the role). 

But Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), the firm’s chief litigator, has had some combination of a nervous breakdown and a crisis of conscience and has covertly switched sides in the case. Much of the film is taken up by intrigue and assassination attempts, along with great dialogue scenes between 2 or more of the characters. 

Sure, the ending is a little too pat, as corporate conspiracies tend not to fall apart because the NYPD charged in (federal indictments are more likely to bring them down, in the rare cases they’re brought down at all).

But the very end, with Clooney in a car, having done the right thing but seeing no real future for himself, is one of cinema’s saddest. 

Late Recognition

Michael Clayton, despite not great box office performance, got seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and acting nods for Clooney, Wilkinson, and Swinton, although only Swinton won. But even for a film with that prestige, it took a while for Michael Clayton to develop its great reputation, which is very much deserved. 

Michael Clayton‘s streaming availability has changed over the years, but it’s now available to stream, free with ads, on Tubi. 

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