The Magazine

The Tort Movie

"Melodrama...at perfect pitch."

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Michael Clayton

Directed by Tony Gilroy

Flatten Michael Clayton into a series of plot points, and George Clooney's new movie is just the same left-wing lawyer flick Hollywood has been making for decades. There have been so many of these movies by now-- .  .  . And Justice For All, The Verdict, Class Action, Philadelphia, The Rainmaker, A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, Changing Lanes--that they comprise a genre of their own. We can call this genre the Tort Movie.

In the Tort Movie, an evil corporation is killing people with a device or substance that is defective or carcinogenic. A class-action lawsuit is filed that causes a magical document to surface from the depths of the corporation's files--a document proving everyone at the highest levels of the corporation knew about the danger beforehand. In the end, the power to destroy the corporation comes to rest in the hands of one lone lawyer, who always happens to be a deeply flawed person susceptible to personal corruption.

The Tort Movie offers an intrinsically appealing melodramatic formula that indulges an audience's lower tastes while pretending to aspire to greater artistic heights. It's a wild conspiracy fantasy with a convenient MacGuffin (the document that blows the case wide open), but it always comes clothed in the more respectable guise of a character study. The Tort Movie genre is sufficiently established by now that it has its own in-joke. That would be an appearance by the director Sydney Pollack--always an unmitigated joy as an actor--playing the smooth, straight-talking, Machiavellian embodiment of the high-priced New York lawyer. Pollack has been the exact same character in three Tort Movies: first A Civil Action, then Changing Lanes, and now Michael Clayton.

Pollack is at his very best in Michael Clayton, which is the best of the Pollack Tort Movies. In fact, Michael Clayton is by leagues the best Tort Movie ever made--a small classic and the most riveting Hollywood film in memory. This is melodrama played at perfect pitch. It is hushed and dark, ominous and suggestive, full of subtle character strokes and anchored by a stunningly focused central performance by George Clooney.

Michael Clayton is the odd man out at his white-shoe firm. He doesn't litigate, he doesn't write briefs, he doesn't bill hours. He's a fixer--the man the firm uses when its high-dollar clients need to deal with an inconvenient arrest for drug possession or flee the site of a car accident. He is also responsible for baby-sitting the firm's finest litigator, Arthur Edens (a great Tom Wilkinson), a manic-depressive who has, on occasion, stopped taking his medication.

The action takes place over four days, as all the strands of Clayton's life begin to unravel at the same moment that one of his firm's most profitable cases begins to unravel--Edens's defense of an agribusiness conglomerate clearly based on Archer Daniels Midland in a case involving a cancer-causing defoliant. The conglomerate's general counsel is the tightly wound Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, the only overactor in an otherwise consummate cast).

Writer-director Tony Gilroy shatters the movie's four days into shards and scatters them throughout the film. Each shard follows one of these three desperate characters--Clayton, Edens, and Crowder--as their increasingly desperate conduct begins to affect the others in dangerous and terrible ways. We don't quite get what is going on in the first 10 minutes of the film, but then, in a masterful and confident narrative stroke, Gilroy replays those same 10 minutes later in the film and makes total sense of them without boring us for a second.

Gilroy is a meticulous filmmaker. He works hard to get the details right--the precise design of the agribusiness's logo, Karen Crowder's exhaustive rehearsal of go-getter corporate rhetoric for an in-house PR film, the unnecessarily unpleasant attitude of the managing partner of Clayton's firm. Because he anchors the movie in hyperrealism, he frees himself to turn the New York streetscapes and office settings into film-noir abstractions that are beautiful and menacing at the same time.

Since the plotline of the Tort Movie is already so familiar, the only way to make it fresh is to come up with a new way to play it. Gilroy's fancy-pants story-telling is what makes Michael Clayton stand out as the best Tort Movie ever made. And in a genre with many memorable performances, especially Paul Newman's in The Verdict, George Clooney has outdone himself and outdone all his predecessors. Somehow, and I'm not sure how, he makes Michael Clayton heartbreaking--a victim of a kind, and a villain of a kind, a man who makes his living by getting people to like him and who loathes himself for it.