Michael Clayton is one of those American films about American lawyers doing American lawyer stuff which isn’t usually my kind of thing. And, anyway, didn’t money-hungry men in neat suits stop being cool or interesting in about 1982? But you know what? This is a pretty decent corporate thriller: tense, exciting, involving, and best of all it stars George Clooney, who is just so hot. I recently read he’d broken a foot in a motorcycle accident and just in case he happens to be a Spectator reader — and why not?; all the best people are — I would like to say this: ‘George, I am willing and ready to nurse you. Further, I know about feet as I have two of them and would have another, if only I knew where to put it. I look forward to hearing from you but meanwhile am on my way as you don’t want to take any chances with feet, and time is of the essence.’
Now, where were we? Well, I don’t know where you were, but I was just about to give Mr Clooney a bedbath. ‘George, don’t be modest. I’m a nurse. I’ve seen it all before.’ Oh, the film. OK, in this film George plays the titular Michael Clayton, a ‘fixer’ for one of the nation’s most powerful law firms. When one of their clients has a problem, they call on him to solve it under the table. He cleans up clients’ messes, handling anything from hit-and-runs and damaging stories in the press to shoplifting wives and crooked politicians. Though burned-out and sickened by his job — poor, sad George — Clayton appears to be inextricably tied to the firm.
Anyway, the real trouble begins when one of the firm’s most senior attorneys, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson; on utterly delicious form), goes doolally, strips in the middle of one of his most important depositions and then runs through a parking lot naked. Clayton is sent to find out what happened and finds Arthur wracked with guilt. He’s in the middle of defending an agrochemical company called U/North from a massive class-action lawsuit, but decides in mid-stream he’s on the wrong side; that he has ‘blood on his hands’.
OK, so far, so tiresome, and you may even be thinking: oh, no, not another movie about the devastating power and malicious intent of a corporation that will do anything to cover up its unethical actions. Didn’t we do that with Erin Brockovich, God bless her? But after a deliberately (I think) slow-burn first hour things pick up nicely with a terrifyingly efficient murder, a car bomb and a terrific Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder, U/North’s highly-strung chief counsel whose sweat drenches her armpits when she panics. There is one brilliant scene when we watch Karen prepare for a speech in her hotel bedroom, practising the subtlety of every word she will speak, as the camera cuts to her actually saying the rehearsed lines in a boardroom. George never sweats, by the way. I don’t think he can.
Listen, this isn’t a perfect film. The plot is probably as likely as some people might say my chances are of ever nursing George, but then they don’t know how good I am with feet. As for Clayton himself, he is a bit of a formulaic cliché. He has no home life to speak of. He’s divorced, lonely, in debt and a gambler. He’s the fixer who can fix everything but his own life and, yes, his moral compass does see him right at the end (which, by the way, is a fantastically satisfying ending).
But I find I don’t really care about any of that. The storytelling is so good I simply got caught up, and, as for George, he is seriously, seriously good; ditching the protective irony and reserve that can sometimes stand between you and whatever character he is playing. Here, his performance is passionate, subtle and right on the money. In one of the first scenes, when he has to fix a hit-and-run, his look of self-loathing’s a master-class in itself. Also, he is very, very hot. If I am not here next week it may be that I am just too busy nursing. ‘Now, George, how am I meant to get at all your bits properly if you won’t take your PJs off? Arms up now….’