Tony Gilroy is best known as one of the writers of the Bourne film series. The first three of them were not just terrific thrillers and character studies about the character of Jason Bourne, but also examinations about the morality and methods of the C.I.A. Gilroy's directorial debut Michael Clayton is a political thriller and also deeply a character study and a thesis about the activities of giant enterprises.
Michael Clayton works as a "fixer" in an authoritative law firm in New York, using his connections and his knowledge of legal loopholes for his clients' benefit. One day one of the firm's leading attorneys and Clayton's colleague Arthur Edens goes nuts during a deposition involving a class action lawsuit against U-North, an agricultural products conglomerate. Clayton is brought to solve the mess. Meanwhile Karen Crowder, U-North's general counsel, discovers that Arthur has found some risky material about U-North which he is planning to expose, which would damage the corporation heavily.
As a character study, Michael Clayton is very good. The film's title is exactly right, because we get to know Clayton as a very multi-dimensional person; as a father, as a worker who detests his job but does it nonetheless, and as a man who struggles to find his moral center. He is a lot like Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann's "The Insider"; a man who at first does what he has to survive and take care of those close to him, but gradually starts to find out how cruel is the system he works for. He also resembles Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction, who solves the problems even in the most hopeless situations.
The film is also good at holding the viewer's attention. Its structure and plot is very complex; in fact at least two thirds of the film is flashback to prepare us for what we saw in the first scene. The cinematography by the reliable Robert Elswit is masterful and the editing by Gilroy's brother John fluent, which partially helps the viewer's concentration keep up. The dialogue is also very strong.
But the biggest strength of the film is definitely its cast. George Clooney gives probably his best performance to date, bringing confidence and fierce intensity to the role of Clayton. Clooney plays him with such self-assurance and effectiveness that this is the performance he should have won the Oscar for (though he had no chance against Daniel Day-Lewis), not the one in Syriana (though he was great in it as well). Tom Wilkinson also does terrific job as the manic Arthur, though he sometimes slips to overacting. Tilda Swinton delivers also a solid and complex performance as Karen.
Though the film has a lot of positive aspects, Michael Clayton still isn't as brilliant as its seven Oscar nominations and reputation of being one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2007 would lead the audience to believe. The central problem with it is that it's nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is. With the complexity of the plot, we are tried to make think that this is something truly intelligent and original, but in the end it's just bluff. Eventually the film is an awfully familiar story about an individual's fight for the truth against a bigger organization, and the denouement is predictable. These stories have been told many times before in numerous better films, like for example All the President's Men and the aforementioned The Insider.
Michael Clayton is well acted, shot and directed but eventually a perfunctory thriller that isn't very exciting and which needlessly confuses the audience. It's still worth watching, even because of the actors alone. This is a film which from the surface you can see there's massive talent but too little imagination behind it.