Since the 1950s, the auteur theory—which affirms the director as the primary film artist—has reigned film criticism. Of course, the vision of the director can illuminate and complement the work of a separate scribe, but there's a special pleasure in watching a film directed by a screenwriter. In a time when unfinished scripts often go before the camera, and directors routinely negotiate studio notes or simply fiddle to the original script's detriment, a screenwriter behind the camera gives the most hope of a truly undiluted narrative vision (if not always the visual talent to match).
Screenwriter Tony Gilroy mostly made his reputation on the Bourne films, but with the support of George Clooney and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, Gilroy has made a confident leap into the director's chair—so confident, in fact, that his film Michael Clayton earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenwriter. Clooney plays the title role of an in-house "fixer" at one of the largest corporate law firms in New York: Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. After seventeen years, Clayton hasn't been made a partner (though he's ensured he should be grateful to have carved out his "niche"); when a $3 billion class-action lawsuit goes wonky, Clayton finds himself pushed to a breaking point.
The trouble arrives in the form of another lawyer's nervous breakdown. The firm's top legal eagle, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has gone off his meds and, while he's at it, off the reservation. During a deposition, he gets naked and professes his love to a plaintiff witness (who also happens to be underage). When his old friend Clayton arrives to bail him out and reign him in, Edens takes on the manner of a holy fool: as Clayton notes wryly, "He's crazy enough to grind away on a case like this for six years without a break." Talking of being born again, Edens has gotten religion about the lifetimes—including his own—consumed by corporate greed and its unscrupulous legal defense. Just as agrichemical corporation U/North has poisoned unwitting Americans, the now-repentant Edens has swallowed his share of Kool-Aid, and he's ready to vomit it up.
"Not only is this a great product," Edens spouts. "It's a superb cancer delivery system." It goes without saying that U/North's best ally has become a major liability, and while Clayton troubleshoots on behalf of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, U/North's in-house counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) begins taking her own steps to save face, at any cost. "I'm not a miracle worker; I'm a janitor," Clayton explains, but Crowder's nervous nellie isn't above enlisting a yet more ruthless breed of janitor, setting the stage for the kind of conspiracy thriller that was en vogue in the 1970s and now just seems like cinema verité (cross-reference Soderbergh's based-on-a-true-story Erin Brockovich).
Clooney gives a model movie-star performance, battening down his (irrepressible) charisma to put forward a haggard, world-weary plodder feeling each screw around him tightening. His work is complimented by two distinctive character actors: the great Wilkinson (here in his theatrical rather than his naturalistic mode) and Swinton, perfectly in sync with a character only we're allowed to see sweat (in a couple of the film's most satisfying sequences, Swinton suits up for "battle," Gilroy intercutting her preparation with her presentations).
At heart, Michael Clayton is a straight-ahead suspense melodrama, complete with villain and a climax with satisfyingly clean lines. But Gilroy constantly elevates the material with surprise gifts. He knows his way around a juicy plot development, to be sure, but he also knows how to make his themes pop (the running allegory provided by "Realm+Conquest," the fantasy book being read by Clayton's school-age son) and his characters breathe: Clayton, in particular, reveals himself as much by his reactions to personal financial reversals and familial fissures as by his plot-driving actions as a part of the U/North case. Here's hoping Gilroy makes the best of the clout he's earned as Hollywood's newest auteur.
BLU-RAY REVIEW: Warner Home Video's release of Michael Clayton on Blu-Ray coincidentally coincides with the official death knoll for HD-DVD (ironically Clayton is also hitting the street in an HD-DVD/DVD combo disc). With the format war decided, now's the time seriously to consider a hi-def software upgrade to complement the impending broadcast switch to hi-def. DVD is a good format, but the difference is apparent in Blu-Ray. Michael Clayton, while not a reference-quality disc, demonstrates how a switch to Blu-Ray brings viewers that much closer to the "theatre" in "home theatre."
VIDEO: Warner delivers a satisfying 25gb Blu-Ray transfer for Michael Clayton, which is to say that it easily trumps standard-definition DVD. That said, the picture doesn't hold up perfectly under close scrutiny. Grain is part of the film's natural look, and for the most part, this is a natural-looking transfer: the color representation is generally dead-on and the detail is excellent, with good black level. However, there are a couple of quick instances of vertical shimmering (the air vents in Clayton's office; Sydney Pollack's ties) and, more troublingly, some unmistakeable pulsing of brightness and color in a handful of scenes. A good example of this happily fleeting problem is Chapter 3; as Clayton handles a hit-and-run client, the background throbs a bit, and some macroblocking is evident. Such flaws are the exception and not the rule; to emphasize the positive, I'm confident that only the hi-def formats will allow you actually to read some of the text of the book "Realm+Conquest."
AUDIO: Similarly, since this isn't Transformers, the soundtrack of Michael Clayton isn't the best example to test the format's limits. Gripers will note the lack of "lossless audio," but for those of us without bat ears, the mix sounds good and true to the theatrical experience (though the level of the background audio in the bar scene may be a bit distracting for some tastes).
BONUS FEATURES: The primary extra is a feature-length screen-specific commentary by director Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy (the two are brothers). With John pitching in, Tony covers the film's origins from pitch to production, what it took to hook George Clooney, the look of the film and choice of shots, locations, filming challenges, character analysis, intentions within the screenplay, and tidbits of plot (what's the only lie told by Pollack's Marty Bach?) and production (Gilroy wrote chunks of the book "Realm+Conquest"). The director also discusses the nature of manic depression, the credibility of the fixer and the film's central felonies, the distinctive qualities of the climactic scene, what Clooney's thinking about in the final shot of the film, and cinematic influences like Network, Klute, and The Parallax View.
The Gilroys warmly name-check and credit their collaborators: DP Robert Elswit (and his emulation of Gordon Willis), composer James Newton Howard, Fluid (the company which created the UNorth commercial), and, of course, the actors (Tilda Swinton, Denis O'Hare, Bill Raymond, Austin Williams, Sydney Pollack, Sean Cullen, David Lansbury, David Zayas, Merritt Wever, and Sam Gilroy, Tony's son...). The commentary also includes a bit of prime fraternal kidding (John: "Tony has trouble getting in touch with his emotions sometimes...It's OK to be in touch with your feelings").
Warner also includes a suite of three "Deleted Scenes" (5:42) presented in standard definition with optional commentary by the Gilroys. The first is a flavorful conversation between Clayton and a "friend with benefits" played by Jennifer Ehle, the second a quick confab between Clayton and criminal lawyer Jerry Dante (Skipp Sudduth), and the third is a trim from the bomb-setting scene. Why were they cut? According to a tongue-in-cheek Tony, they were "hard to lose, but Johnny's a prick" (ah, brotherly love).
IN SHORT... For those stocking up on the Oscar-nominated cream of 2007's crop, Michael Clayton will be a no-brainer purchase, made easier by the inclusion of a detailed director's commentary and deleted scenes. And on Blu-Ray, the film looks nearly as good as in the theatre. For the high-def fence sitters, there's always the DVD, which includes the same bonus content.
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