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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Monday, February 4, 2008

Michael Clayton; or, Why Do We Even Bother Trying to Communicate about Movies?

I really didn't want to see Michael Clayton. The trailer looked bad to me: I have a problem with movies in which sympathetic characters yell at the representatives of social evil on my behalf. No one I talked to made it sound exceptional, though I heard a fair amount of uninspiring half-praise. Finally I perked up when Jean-Michel Frodon recommended the film in passing in the new issue of Cahiers du Cinema. I saw it on Saturday night and fell a little bit in love with it - it's probably my favorite American film of 2007. I like to fantasize that Cahiers has some special pipeline to my movie sensibility; but Hervé Aubron's full review on Cahiers #627 was definitely in the half-praise category.

I am not indignant at the restrained reaction to this amazing movie in my usual circles. On the contrary, I'm forced once again to wonder whether "amazing to me" bears any relationship to "amazing."

Sometimes I think that the most important things about filmmaking are the smallest in scale, the things that are hardest to talk about. There's a sensibility at work in Michael Clayton that shifts the timbre of every scene slightly: inner conflict is driven to a place that is usually detectible only by inference; the difference between legal authority and legal obfuscation is expressed only by a certain needless repetition in the argument, and the occasional glance at the side of the room. If Sidney Lumet had made a film on this subject, I would have clawed my way through concrete with my fingernails to get out of the theater. And yet Lumet is the reference point used most often in reviews of Michael Clayton.

I've never seen anything written by Tony Gilroy before. I'm impressed with the way he confronts the central problem of story construction in this genre: how to make it plausible that characters will rebel against a professional life in which they are deeply ensconced and to which they are inured by decades of familiarity. The usual technique is to invoke the magic of fiction: at some key dramatic point, the emotions evoked in the audience are transferred to a privileged character via sleight of hand. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: fiction has its charms, as does reportage. But Gilroy thinks he might be able to reconceive the problem so that he doesn't have to do the work to hide a magic trick. He decides that the most plausible explanation for this kind of break is insanity. And so the character who actually ruptures his life is in the grip of clinically diagnosed mania. The effect of conscience and the effect of mental illness cannot be teased apart here, which sounds just about right to me. The protagonist is drawn into the plot, not by a crisis of conscience, but by an attempt to cover up for his crazy friend. The rest of his conversion can be chalked up to the desire to avoid car bombs. He actually never has a crisis of conscience. The great beauty of the serene taxi scene under the end credits is that we are free to believe that Michael Clayton is now, as the movie ends, at leisure to start thinking about the big issues that have heretofore preoccupied only the insane.

Gilroy uses flashback in a way that I can't remember seeing before. By taking a chunk of the penultimate section of the story and sticking it at the film's beginning, he accomplishes more than the usual goal of tantalizing the audience with mystery that must be explicated. The scenes that Gilroy puts up front are actually not redolent of mystery: they play out like an introduction to Clayton's professional life, not like the endgame of a drama in progress. After the film is over, we can see that this flash-forward contains some of the most tricky and abstract material in a mostly pragmatic procedural: Clayton's veneer is beginning to crack; he describes his life in terms borrowed from his insane friend; and he flirts dangerously with lyricism in being drawn to the sight of horses grazing on a hill. Those horses would have gone badly for Gilroy if the story were told in chronological order. But the flash-forward is a win-win situation: the abstraction happens early, when we can accept it as foundational material; and the exposition is so convincing that we are surprised when Gilroy jumps back in time.

There's a lot more to be said about this movie, which I plan to see often over the coming decades.



Blogger Eric M. said...

I only saw Clayton once straight through, and then rewatched scenes at work in and out. And it was definetly one of my favorites of last year easily.

Is this your Oscar pick now, Dan?

February 4, 2008 1:32 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

It's the one I would want to win. I'm not very good at predicting.

After I wrote this piece, I realized that it was a bit odd for me to act surprised at how much I liked the film, given that it's nominated for everything, has high ratings on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and even did respectably in alterna-polls. I guess my expectations were created by a very small and local set of inputs. Anyway, I edited the blog entry to remove some of the evidence of tunnel vision.

February 4, 2008 2:20 PM  
Anonymous Jonah said...

I agree it's interesting that the dialogue with the yuppie who is in danger of being prosecuted for hit-and-run is in there at the beginning alongside the more obviously "hook" of the car bomb.

What did you think about the Tilda Swinton character? The one thing about this movie that continues to bother me (otherwise I thought it was very fine) is how it uses Swinton's middle-aged flesh, which is shown spilling out over her undergarments in unflatteringly-lit medium shots. These shots are parts of sequences that serve to undercut Swinton's Superlawyer role by exhibiting the work and indeed desperation required to maintain it. On the one hand, this is not a completely uncommon thing to do with a film's villain. It serves, ostensibly, to provide a skein of psychological motivation to someone who might otherwise seem robotic.

But this motivation didn't seem very convincing to me, compared to those given to the other characters. It didn't explain the depths of the character's mendacity--or rather, if it was *supposed* to explain this, even partly, it seems particularly objectionable. And the fact that her *flesh* is enlisted in this process bothers me most of all, because this is not a device that would likely work with a male character. No way would Gilroy have proposed something similar for a character like the one played by Tom Wilkinson, whose striptease in a deposition room is cut away from very quickly.

In other words, the shortcut Gilroy chose to take in trying to make the Swinton character 3-D seems to exploit a particularly vile double standard. I suppose a screenwriter works with whatever he has to work with, but given the film's felicity overall these moments felt unusually crass.

February 4, 2008 8:47 PM  
Blogger Vadim said...

You never cease to surprise me Dan. I liked the movie fine, but I guess I saw a different movie, one in which we were on a straight line to Getting Away From Corruption. Wish I'd seen your version, frankly.

February 4, 2008 11:54 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jonah - somehow I didn't have that reaction to Swinton's physical presence. I did notice that she had a little bulge here and there when we saw her without her shirt...but I'm not sure that I thought that Gilroy was trying to make her unattractive. (When we first see her, the underarm sweat stains on her shirt are definitely emphasized; but I interpreted that as an abstract depiction of fear, before we knew much about the character.) I'll consider that angle when I see the film again.

The hit-and-run client was sufficiently forceful and well-established that he helped reinforce the idea that we were seeing the real beginning of the movie: either an introduction to Clooney's job, or the initiation of an important plot thread. Without such a substantial bit of business, the flash-forward might have been more obvious.

Vadim - I was surprised at how the film handled the corruption angle. I really can't think of any speechifying in the film that floated free of the characters and became direct address to the audience. Wilkinson's patter is all amazement at his revelation (which almost always can be interpreted as mania), adoration of the young plaintiff girl Anna, or play with the idea that he knows about his mental instability and needs to communicate around it. Clooney only hits the issues during his climactic confrontation with Swinton, and there what I felt was not really an expression of moral outrage: I picked up more of personal vendetta, the edginess of a high-risk game, and lawyerly joy in the execution of a successful power maneuver. And one of the things I loved about the film is what Gilroy did with the energy that he accumulated during that scene: he slowly dissipated it via that long tracking shot away from the battle ground, and turned it into the vibration of muffled city traffic under that long closeup in the taxi.

February 5, 2008 11:33 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

The opening flashback with the car bomb bothered me. Not as it happened, but seen the second time during the chronological narrative. As an opening, it intrigued and excited me. Seen the second time, the car bomb device was utterly contrived. I'm hardly one of those plot-hole nitpickers, but in this case the absurdity of sharp and ruthless assassins using a car bomb was so glaring -- and the opening sequence called such attention to it -- that I was torn out of the movie. I sat in the theater, calculating why Gilroy used the flashback/car bomb, recognized it as a textbook example of "movie suspense," etc. etc. It was a phony embellishment on an otherwise taut and engrossing and -- this above all -- REALISTIC psychological drama.

February 6, 2008 10:16 AM  
Blogger M.A.Peel said...

I only saw it once, so memory might be a little hazy. But I haven't seen anyone write about how the horses are an illustration in Clayton's son's book. I think the kid's book is some sort of sci/fi story, with a compelling world that he loves and he wants to share with his Dad. I felt that the story tip-toed near some Signs territory here, and that felt out of place to me within this narrative.

February 6, 2008 12:04 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Tom - I guess a car bomb would tend to draw a little more attention from the police and the press than, say, a simulated suicide, wouldn't it. There were one or two other cases where I wondered about the plot mechanism. I wasn't quite convinced that Clooney had really obtained solid evidence at the climax, for instance.

But it's rather striking that Gilroy didn't play the car bomb for suspense in any way. In the flash-forward, it was a total surprise; the second time around, we knew the outcome, and the focus was on the nervousness of the assassins and the spatial layout of the action, which is resolved only when we see the bomb go off through the assassin's rear windshield. This is a fairly extreme deviation from genre.

It's worth noting also that the malevolent characters in this film don't have the magical power that Hollywood usually invests in villains. The planning of the killings is fraught with anxiety and miscommunication; the hired guns communicate with each other in mundane, scaled-down dialogue. Assuming the car bomb is an inept move, it's not impossible to conceive of ineptness in this universe.

M. A. - I didn't notice the horses in the book - you think that's why Clooney got out of the car? I'll look for that next time.

I liked the way that book was used, though. Clooney's son knew that Clooney would have no time to read it, but it didn't damage their relationship, which is a nice, non-movie way to characterize a family. Wilkinson's interest in the book and in Clooney's family has the inobtrusive effect of strengthening the bond between Clooney and Wilkinson. Then, best of all, the book is the central discovery when Clooney breaks into Wilkinson's loft - it tells us almost nothing in terms of plot, but it conflates the father-son bond with Clooney's tie to Wilkinson. There's a tricky problem of motivation in the movie - why doesn't the pragmatic Clooney consider walking away from his friend's death, to save his own life? - that Gilroy is chipping away at.

February 6, 2008 12:55 PM  
Blogger M.A.Peel said...

Dan, yes, I think the book is why Clooney gets out of the car. The horse grouping is exact to the illustration he noticed in his son's book when he flipped through it. And that's what saves his life.

February 6, 2008 2:24 PM  
Blogger Andrew Johnston said...

I really loved the movie for a lot of reasons (among them being the character of Michael's son--who reminded me a lot of myself as a kid--and the casting of people who look like real-life Irish-American outer-borough schlubs as Michael's siblings) and am delighted to read such a lucid, thoughtful take on it. I guess I didn't read too many reviews when it came out, since I haven't encountered too many comparisons to Lumet--in my conversations with other film lovers, it's been much more often compared to the work of Alan J. Pakula.

February 6, 2008 2:45 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Andrew - from my point of view, at least, Gilroy feels more like Pakula than Lumet. Lumet tends to construct his characters out of big swaths of emotion; and, for better or worse, these emotions often relate directly to the film's defining issues, or to the attitude that he hopes to instill in the audience.

What I love about Gilroy is that he works mostly with surfaces, with what characters are willing to show; and he can actually be quite daring about not giving us much more information than his often-devious characters want to give their adversaries. And yet the whole film is yearning to get to a quiet, sad, contemplative inner place, and then it finally gets there under the end credits.

Pakula is maybe less interested in that inner space? When I think of his best films, I think of the hard, mysterious world he creates, and about the emotional impact of going from the small to the large and back again. He's really just one step away from being a horror director; and he creates a universe that has a direct effect on the audience. There are people in his films, sometimes very interesting ones...but somehow they aren't at the center of my Pakula experience.

February 6, 2008 3:32 PM  
Blogger Simon Crowe said...

I was unclear why Clayton is assumed to be dead when no body is found in the car. Also, at what point does Wilkinson's character have time to have multiple copies of the smoking gun memo copied and bound? To me the film was well acted but pretty conventional and not deserving of a Best Picture nomination.

February 6, 2008 6:29 PM  
Blogger Andrew Johnston said...

Also, at what point does Wilkinson's character have time to have multiple copies of the smoking gun memo copied and bound?

I saw the movie ages ago--the second weekend it was out--so my memory of it ain't what it could be, but I seem to recall a scene where either Wilkinson or Clooney gets a bunch of copies run off at a Kinko's-type place. Or am I misremembering it?

February 6, 2008 6:41 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Yeah, Wilkinson just dropped a copy of the document at a copy shop. I believe he alluded to it, and then we see Clooney at the shop later.

I was wondering about whether Clooney could really fake his death so easily. Somehow this problem doesn't bother me much, though. Whether Clooney is thought dead or not doesn't change the film greatly; and anyway, I was never confused about what was intended, so it was just a matter of going with the film's fantasy.

February 7, 2008 12:22 PM  
OpenID toshiyano said...

I saw the movie recently, too, and as much as I liked it, something's been bugging me about it since. To be brief, what I saw in Michael Clayton was a real mastery of a lot of different aspects of filmmaking, but also a real weakness for pointing out this mastery. The acting was superb, yes, but too often it whispered, "Performance"; the language was a bit showy, too, overly theatrical in its fondness for itself; and the coincidence of the trees was too much by half. (The car bomb, however, didn't bother me so much - remember, Clooney was neck-deep in debt to some Mafia types, a fact the assassins could have easily uncovered, and that would have come out during any investigation - as for covering up the fact that there was no body, well, his brother was a cop).

Just looked at his filmography... turns out Gilroy wrote the Bourne movies. I have to say, I like his vision of the law as something that's unjustly gamed by its players, as well as the accidental (Bogart-y?) quality of his heroes; I think he may be better served by other directors, though, who could afford to be less precious with his material.

February 8, 2008 3:24 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Toshi - I'm trying to remember trees in the movie, much less a coincidence with them....

I guess Gilroy's dialogue is a little on the artificial side. Of course, one could say that about any number of celebrated writers. Speaking for myself, "overly theatrical" and "fond of itself" are the kind of phrases I find myself using when the emotional content of the artifice doesn't work for me; when it does, I tend to focus on what emotion the artifice conveys, not on the fact of artifice.

Gilroy writes with a very American, stoical tone. The movie writer I thought of as a comparison is the (vastly underrated) George Armitage, but it's not the same. Armitage works out of a laconic, laid-back posture that is redolent of the 60s, of Zen mastery. Gilroy is banging against the world, a little like old 30s lefties like Polonsky; but he's less about anger than about composure, compression, graceful action. Armitage projects an ideal of how to live in the world; Gilroy has the interesting quality that the humor and power of his characters leave a lot of room for real doubt and self-questioning.

I can't say that I found Clooney's performance splashy. Maybe once in a while he cycled through the same crouched-shoulders, bang-my-way-through-this routine (a danger that the script invites), but on the whole I thought he was pretty wonderful, and in general I greatly admire him as an actor. Wilkinson maybe was a little splashy. I can live with it, though.

February 8, 2008 1:18 PM  
OpenID toshiyano said...

Sorry Dan, by "trees" I meant the hill with the horses, on top of which stood two (?) trees, and the illustration of same in the book - what M.A. was commenting on...

And it really wasn't the emotional content of the film that I had a problem with - it was the artifice; I felt the requisite sympathy, etc. when I was supposed to (I hope), but I kept asking myself, "Is that what he'd be saying, how he'd be saying it?" That in turn led to my (relatively small) problem with the acting: I felt as if the actors were speaking words from a page. Wilkinson's take *was* "splashy" (not my word); Clooney and Swinton, on the other hand, were fairly restrained - and really strong - but their performances always registered as performances, to an almost Brechtian degree.

I only know Armitage from Miami Blues and his direction of Grosse Point Blank - not someone I'd immediately think of in relation to Michael Clayton. The Chayevsky of Hospital and Network seems closer to me, that is, the Chayevsky of the first half of those movies, before the hysterics kick in - esp. their shared focus on rigged systems, institutional weariness, casual injustice...

Your piece has really made me think about the movie quite a lot, and is the best take on it I've encountered. I think Gilroy shows an enormous amount of talent, both for writing and directing, and has the potential to become a master (despite some early hackery) if he can learn to edit himself a touch, tone down the voluptuousness of his language just a mite...

February 8, 2008 7:16 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Toshi - I often have trouble with Chayevsky's writing, so maybe I didn't want to connect him to Gilroy.... Seems to me that, even though Gilroy has his characters react to events 90% of the time, he really cares primarily about their internal states, and is just taking an indirect route. Whereas Chayevsky seems to me in great danger of using people as mouthpieces. It's been a while since I've seen anything he's written, though. (I was always fascinated by the way that his excesses and Ken Russell's seemed to cancel each other out in Altered States - as if Chayevsky really needed his dialogue to be motormouthed to take away some of its portent, and Russell really needed something, anything to tie him to reality.)

Miami Blues, though an adaptation, seems to me a good example of Armitage's style. Hot Rod (aka Rebel of the Road), Vigilante Force, and Hit Man are the basic course in Armitage, if you can find them; The Big Bounce doesn't have an Armitage writing credit, but I have a feeling that he worked on the script, and it fits into his oeuvre well enough.

February 8, 2008 10:29 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I just saw Michael Clayton a second time, and feel like dilating a bit upon the experience.

If you take two ideas from this discussion - my thought that Wilkinson's insanity is important to Gilroy's spin on genre, and Toshi's observation that Wilkinson's acting is a bit of a capital-P Performance - and push them together, you begin to create a formal map of the film in which insanity is not just a plot justification but also part of the film's style dialectic. The thesis of this dialectic would be the psychologically plausible depiction of a legal/business world, whose inhabitants wind up there because of the realistic entropy of professional life; the antithesis is that spark of craziness that associates itself in the film with radical life change, idealism, even the uncanny (more on the uncanny later); and the synthesis is the change wrought in the central consciousness of Michael Clayton. In support of this idea that insanity is part of the film's form, I observe that a) the film's daring introduction gives us this dialectic in a nutshell by putting Wilkinson's bravura, wild-eyed monologue over a visual map of the legal office and the legal world; b) a lot of the humor and the pleasure of the film's first half comes from the reactions of the sane characters to the unexpected developments that grow from Wilkinson's craziness. The story mechanism is all about the attempts of the mundane world to contain and neutralize the forces unleashed by Wilkinson.

In this content, I'd like to say that I overstated the case when I said that Clooney "actually never has a crisis of conscience." True, the plot develops without needing a big conversion from Clooney. But there are little moments in the film where we see Clooney begin to be infected by Wilkinson's mania-fueled enlightenment. The first is the long message that Clooney leaves on Wilkinson's answering machine: though Clooney is still acting on behalf of the pragmatic world, he acknowledges all Wilkinson's moral points during the message. He is partly trying to win Wilkinson's cooperation by meeting him halfway, but he repeats himself too often, and puts too much oompf into the relevant sentences, for us not to feel that they have weight for him. After Wilkinson's death (I really should have put spoiler warnings somewhere in this thread, but it's too late now), the process accelerates, and there is a striking scene, which I'd forgotten about, in which Clooney says to Sydney Pollack, "What if Arthur wasn't crazy? What if he was right?" Pollack's response is a statement of the film's form: he basically says, "What's the big news there? We knew this was a dirty case. You don't have to tell me how we've been making our money." In other words, Pollack is saying: "In the story line that belongs to the sane characters, your revelations aren't revelations at all and have no ability to sway us. These ideas have weight for you only because you are leaving our narrative and going over to the crazy/idealist narrative." We have heard Clooney on the opposite side of this divide earlier in the film: in the phone message to Wilkinson, he said something like "Even if you're right, we've spent decades of our lives getting ourselves to this place, and we did it knowingly - it's not the sort of thing you reverse overnight." This is pretty much irrefutable within the context of psychological continuity that characterizes the mundane world.

Having introduced this idea that the film can be seen as Clooney moving from one narrative to another, I'd like to discuss M. A.'s point about the peculiar incident of the horses under the trees. I missed it altogether on my first viewing, but sure enough, Clooney recognizes the horses from the picture in his son's book. Because of Gilroy's clever flashback structure, I don't wince at the way this coincidence saves Clooney's life. (Billy Wilder once said, "Every film is based on a coincidence - just make sure it happens at the beginning of the film and not at the end.") The way Gilroy tells the story, Clooney's survival is a premise of the story, not a result of it. But still, whence this near-mysticism? Having spotted the book illustration this time, I noted that Clooney's audience with the horses near the film's end has a tearful, rapturous quality: his love for his son (expressed very indirectly before this, thanks to Gilroy's tough-guy, anti-sentimental dialogue style) is not only visible, but also perhaps interacting with the other changes that he is undergoing. It might not be too bold to see this moment as a turning point for Clooney, a big step in his movement to the narrative of insanity and idealism. And the fact that we have seen the entire incident already, in a more naturalistic context, makes me more accepting of it, more willing to mine a second layer of meaning.

So I think I buy it, on some level - though I don't think that Clooney is necessarily receiving a message from another dimension.

To conclude this discussion of the insanity narrative: one of the film's most thrilling moments - Clooney's half-mad, half-triumphant adoption of Wilkinson's craziest line: "I am Shiva, the god of death!" - gets its force partly from the excitement of Clooney's successful power play, and partly from the way it suggests that he is parting ways with his old, pragmatic consciousness. It's a hammer thrown at a plate-glass window.

On first viewing, I had been a little wary of the way that Gilroy allows the audience to think at the climax that perhaps Clooney was in fact corrupt - I wondered if Gilroy were playing with the audience for the mere pleasure of seeing the story come out right in the end. This time around I was totally won over by the device. For one thing, the scene is beautiful to watch after one knows what is going on: Clooney's distinctive mix of anger and reserve is completely genuine and yet can be used in the service of his duplicitous game; he indulges his lawyerly love of domination even as he is allegedly abasing himself. For another thing, Clooney's self-condemnation is genuine: he has no trouble painting himself to Swinton as "the guy you buy," because he can adduce real biographical details as evidence. His anger is not entirely directed at the bad guys.

And the mise-en-scene of that last scene is awesome! The shot of Clooney walking away from the carnage is just stunning in the way it expresses the obsolescence of the narrative (which is still kicking in the background) and the film's final movement to share Clooney's mysterious, introspective solitude.

I kept in mind Jonah's feeling that Gilroy took a cheap shot at Swinton by making her look bad, but I didn't really feel that way about it. There were two shots in which Swinton's semi-nudity wasn't movie-star pretty, but I wouldn't go so far as to call her unattractive. The effect of these scenes was more to depoeticize her than to call attention to bodily defects, in my mind. (I thought she remained kind of milf-y in those shots, actually, though that's a subjective reaction.)

I don't think Gilroy was trying to explain or understand Swinton's character. I think he was using shorthand, but not so much to vilify her as to reduce her villainy to a mundane scale. The motif of all her scenes is her terror and her desperation: these emotions permeate nearly all of those behind-the-scenes glimpses of her. The effect for me is that I wasn't moved to hate her - Gilroy has substituted another set of emotions for the animosity that the plot might otherwise induce in us. And that's about all there is to that thread of the film. Otherwise Gilroy seems willing to let us imagine the mundane motivations behind her actions.

February 10, 2008 9:22 PM  
OpenID toshiyano said...

Dan, another quick thought re: Gilroy vs Chayevsky: imagine Wilkinson was the central character of the film and you probably get a good idea of what I mean about their similarities...

I think Gilroy may be a better writer/filmmaker (at least for these times) for being on the cynic's side rather than the madman's, to refer to the dialectic you've discerned - for the moment, anyway, Michael Clayton speaks to me more than Network (I haven't seen Hospital in a while, though, and always loved George C. Scott in that role, more than any other).

Clooney's moment - that last scene - is one of his best: he encapsulates all that is charming and decent about his career in around three minutes. Thanks for the update. But I still feel funny about the horses/trees/hills.

February 17, 2008 1:59 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Toshi - I recently read an interview with Gilroy in which he says that he intended only for Clayton to feel a longing for something natural in that horse scene, that he is a little surprised that people are running with the fore-or aft-shadowing in the book. Maybe he miscalculated a bit with that drawing. Anyway, I'm declining the invitation to reinterpret the narrative, and I think I can absorb the various emotional overtones.

I definitely see your point about Chayevsky. The fact that Gilroy always puts Wilkinson's powerful speechifying against a more mundane background makes a lot of difference to me. But I don't know any other Gilroy-written films: I guess I'll eventually get more of a fix on what that kind of commentary-cum-characterization means to him.

February 17, 2008 11:50 AM  
Blogger bake said...

I didn't think the killers showed ineptitude in their car-bomb scheme; it was clear that they expected Clooney to spend much longer at the card game than he did; it was only because he left the game suddenly (annoyed by the jerk at the table?) that they had to rush (and hence semi-botch) the job.

February 19, 2008 9:11 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Baker - I had been wondering why the killers would use such a newsworthy method of assassination, when they had wanted to make their previous killing look like a suicide. I think that was Tom's original objection also. Toshi thought that they were perhaps counting on the bomb looking like a mob killing for gambling debts. I'm not too deeply invested in the issue, so any excuse whatsoever is enough to put my mind at ease.

February 19, 2008 10:14 PM  
Blogger Iammine78 said...

As far as the angles of corruption and absolution of character, regardless of the 'good' or 'gray' of the character, I'm surprised no one as yet referenced reminders of 'The Insider', a superlative films of the entire 90's decade. The characters of both Clooney and Pacino mirror each other in many 'high point' ways if you will. To that end you could almost argue that Clooney gives the more nuanced and restrained performance, especially when considering the final confrontation at the end.

February 24, 2008 7:52 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I haven't seen The Insider, but it's the film I thought of when someone asked me for an example of the genre that Michael Clayton is working.

Have many people noticed that there is no romantic interest whatsoever in Michael Clayton?

February 25, 2008 5:07 PM  
Blogger Iammine78 said...


Its ironic that you mention the absence of romance, just after my reference of 'The Insider'. At the start of that film, both Pacino and Crowe are married men, yet in no way is there any points of romance for either, be it with wife or mistress or new girlfriend that arrives to save the tortured soul in the 11th hour. I have yet to listen to it myself but I've heard that in the director's commentary for 'Clayton', Gilroy discusses the decision to edit out, completely, scenes that Clayton had with a girlfriend. Its either in the commentary or some other special feature on the disc. I think its an inspired choice, especially when you consider the fact that your lead is one of the 'Sexiest Men Alive'.

On that note, I don't think Clooney gets enough credit for his skills as an actor ('Solaris' anyone?). He is, after all, the winner of an Academy Award. Whether we realize it or not, but its the overly famous, pretty faces that we tend to critique the most fiercely. Do we often find ourselves that desperate to find one (at least one!) thing to criticize them for?? ;) Clooney carries a damn good ability with comedic timing in addition to his work in 'Clayton'. I hope, in the future, Clooney continues to use Section 8 for material such as this. I see no reason why he wouldn't.

February 28, 2008 3:14 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I'm all for love stories, but it's great that Gilroy was able to get Michael Clayton made with so much structural integrity, and it's even greater that the absence of the conventional meaningless romance on the side didn't seem to hurt the film's appeal.

Clooney is one of those actors who always builds off a core of personality - the kind about which people sometimes say "he always plays himself." This sort of actor is often underrated relative to the sort who can transform for different roles. But transformation doesn't have anything to do with the quality of any one movie: it's just proof to the audience that acting is going on.

When auteurists set out to make the classical American entertainment cinema respectable, one of the obstacles was getting people to appreciate actors whose principal virtue was that they existed plausibly on screen. (John Wayne is perhaps the locus classicus.) The theoretical underpinning of this battle is that all cinema is founded upon the concept of documentary, and that the reality of the actor is part of the documentary foundation that lends power to the fiction.

It's a vast topic. Anyway, George Clooney is God.

February 29, 2008 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You and I must've seen different versions of the same movie. The movie I saw was a solidly excuted legal thriller in the vein of a John Grisham novel filmed by a 1973Alan Pakula. The movie you saw sounds as if it was directed by Vintage Resnais, adapted from a book written by Serrault. Let me know when your version comes out on DVD because I would like to see it.

March 4, 2008 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw the movie michael clayton and i did not understand what walter (phone voice only) had to do with the script(plot)

March 10, 2008 12:32 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

If I'm remembering correctly, Walter was just featured in the scenes with the hit-and-run client, right? I think he was pretty much a functional character, to show the way the fixer's job works: a lawyer from the firm (Walter) brings the fixer (Michael) in to help the lawyer's clients. We hear his name a lot, because he's important to the client - but I don't think he's important to the movie itself.

March 11, 2008 10:58 AM  

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