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MichaelClayton.jpgSince the trailer for “Michael Clayton” only left me scratching my head and grunting like a Cro-Magnon, I was surprised to find myself in full command of my cerebral cortex as I walked (upright) out of the theater. Actually, I wasn’t in full command of it because I was still processing the film’s intricate, layered look into the ethical underpinnings of a fictional Manhattan corporate law firm.
At this movie’s heart is a moral dilemma: What would you do if you were single-handedly involved in the outcome of a $3 billion class-action lawsuit against the powerful agrochemical company that you worked for? Would you make public a “smoking gun” document that shows your company was negligent in causing rampant cancer among a group of small-time farmers and their family members? Collateral damage, anyone?
Don’t answer too quickly. What’s at stake is your entire professional career, the careers of your superiors in whose powerful presence you practically tinkle yourself and the reputation of your company whose potential financial loss is incalculable.


Under tremendous pressure, would you ever hire a covert company to intimidate those who got in your way? Even if you knew things would look… oh, let’s use the word “accidental”?
The movie doesn’t make the answers to these questions as black-and-white as you might expect; it almost paints any evil-doers found within its two-hour time span as victims, the victims of whopping insecurities, the Peter Principle, greed, ambition and other fun, negative bedfellows. “Michael Clayton” is refreshing in that it gives an identity to the faceless corporations who fail to take any responsibility for their actions, that proliferate on “60 Minutes” stories these days. To look in that face, however, means we must also look into the collective American soul.
Are you so morally grounded that you wouldn’t waffle in making some of these extremely tough decisions? Aren’t all beliefs just conjecture and a lot of hot air until they’re put to the test?
I’ve tried several times to boil this movie down to a one-liner, but I simply can’t. As this film proves, this is the way it should be sometimes. My mom would see it because the eminently watchable, understated, and underrated George Clooney is in his “sexy salt-and-pepper” hair phase. Regardless of what gets you into the theater, “Michael Clayton” is a haunting, elegant film that sneaks up on you.
I am one of the most impatient moviegoers out there–you can usually find me sighing “we GET it already!” as I run mental to-do lists in my head or watch the extras in a scene to see who’s carrying on the most believable silent conversation. This film, however, is full of good old-fashioned storytelling that actually restored my faith in Hollywood films. What it may lack in flash or action it makes up for in respect for its audience.
Regardless of the film’s conclusion, which may be lacking in verisimilitude (I’m keeping everything vague here on purpose), it asks a very hard question of the viewer: Has your decision-making ability never been hampered by the smell of money or the fear of failure?
I bet it has, and “Michael Clayton” agrees, seeming to say, “Same duck, different pond.”
— By Todd Havens

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