Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) personifies the crème arrived at the top. As lead litigator for a top east-coast law firm defending agrochemical producer U/North against a class action suit for deceptively marketing a product highly toxic to humans, he is feared and respected.
Holding the upper hand in the case, and headed for settlement, he suffers a mental breakdown, a crisis of conscience.
In the opening of the movie, Edens eloquently describes his arrival at the breaking point. In flowing prose, he reflects that, in the course of executing his duties he felt drenched in excrement.
Among his colleagues, it would be less offensive to refer to gas of the intestines than pangs of the conscience, the latter more off-putting to publicly expel.
Edens’ change of heart comes at an awkward time. U/North is about to prevail in their lawsuit. The company’s in-house council, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) relatively new to her job and responsible for her company’s liaison with Edens’ law firm, becomes immediately desperate, sending the thriller into full forward motion.
The law firm’s lead partner turns to “The Janitor”, Michael Clayton (George Clooney), nicknamed for his uncanny ability to take care of messy situations.
Through a unusual inversion placing this exceptionally skilled lawyer on the most offensive tasks, Clayton specializes in cleaning up after the well-to-do, as opposed to litigating high profile cases—an unpleasant task involving unpleasant people.
He shoves sexual indiscretions, hit and run accidents, and other transgressions into crevices so dark and deep, the lightof day doesn’t have the courage to visit, let alone shine its light on an event.
So good is he at what he does the firm wouldn't consider anyone else for his position. This also means they wouldn't consider him for anything else. Clayton’s intelligence when combined with a moral fiber long ago pawned for the sake of his gambling jones, perfectly suits him for the task.
His long time association with the law firm is a match made in Heaven — or more likely the other place. His potential liability actually proves a blessing to the firm. His flaw doesn’t result in physical deterioration, stumbling or slurring. He’s handsome, articulate and very presentable.
Michael remains useful to the firm and they, by dint of their financial support in the face of his shortcomings, are of inestimable value to him.
This latest mess for the janitor proves most foul from the start, and threatens to contaminate both firm and client. Such is Edens’ remorse, the brilliant litigator is not content just to walk away from his dirty deed. He’s most intent on righting his wrong.
Michael's task involves persuading this man of the error of his ways, a critical task, given that the repentant counselor now possesses a document directly incriminating his former client.
Eden now seeks to aid the plaintiffs, whose case for so many years he has sought to undermine. He knows the game plan of the defendants. He built it.
To say the least, counselor Eden has now become very inconvenient for a number of people.
Wilkinson, the movie’s superior actor in the role of the hero, actually plays second fiddle to the bigger draw, George Clooney. This, as it turns out, contributes to the film eventually losing the steam it so artfully built.
Besides taking screen time away from Wilkinson, it also detracts from the narrative. Clayton’s marital issues, his relationship with his son, his humiliations at the gambling table, are no more that peripheral to the real story.
Clooney’s role of a disempowered, bright attorney, with a special type of weakness, requires more subtlety than he is able to bring.
A narrative that winds through the sordid world of modern aristocratic privilege and ruthless backroom business has us on the hook. And then lets us off.
Once it dramatically exposes socially respectable institutions as corrupt, it grows weak when faced with providing a plausible solution; a dilemma inextricably tied to the ending.
As such, “Michael Clayton” fritters away a commanding performance by Tom Wilkinson and like the character for which it is named, fails to deliver on the promise it showed in its early life.