Director: Tony Gilroy; Release date: out now
With the commercially gratifying Oceans 13 in the bag my expectations were high that the latest George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh collaboration would deliver another gem like the grand chessboard politics of Syriana or the rich dialogue of Good Night and Good Luck.
This time they team up with first time director Tony Gilroy, the writer behind the Bourne trilogy and The Devil's Advocate. The result is that Michael Clayton falls somewhere between those genres in the form of a law-firm espionage.
Clooney, in the title role, plays a fixer in a giant New York law firm. He calls himself the "janitor" as he mops up any unsavoury business as a special service to their clients.
Although once a successful trial lawyer, his aptitude for dealing with the darker side of business has made him indispensable to his boss, but alienated from himself. Now bound to the job through failed business ventures and gambling debts, he has bottomed out.
The story, told in flashback leading up to a lucky although improbable escape from an assassination attempt, is based around a cover up case involving an agrichemical corporation. They produce a weed killer that kills more than weeds, and now face a lawsuit. Clayton's colleague, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), was head of the corporation's defence, but after years of suppressing and covering the lies he is consumed by depression and appears to crack, bringing down the house of cards with him.
As Clayton is leaned on to do what he does best and rein Arthur in, his moral compass begins to spin. The senior in-house council for the corporation (Tilda Swinton) has no such conflict, and driven by ruthless desire in her macho world, is determined to resist the case.
Like Good Night and Good Luck this film has a good, realistic feel about it. The same cinematographer, Robert Elswit, lights everything perfectly, and the succinct mosaic script demanded by such a dialogue driven narrative is carefully and confidently laid down by actors on top of their game.
But like Michael Clayton, I needed something more in my life. Having set up corporations and their corruption, they let them off the hook too lightly, but more than that, the "Fixer" character of Michael Clayton presented the perfect analogy for an entire class of lawyers who protect and clear up for their masters on dubious moral and legal grounds. Instead this film is content to focus on the moral choices made by isolated individuals. There's nothing wrong with that, but a missed opportunity, I feel.