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Michael Clayton- Truth can be adjusted

July 8, 2013

( This post is being published by me as part of  the Sydney Pollack Blogathon.  Pollack apart from being a great director, also produced some excellent movies,  and  this 2007 legal drama was one of my favorites).

“…now I am become Death [Shiva], the destroyer of worlds…”

Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, Supervising Scientist of the Manhattan Project

Michael: You are a manic depressive

Arthur: I’m Shiva the God of Death.

In Hindu philosophy, Shiva is considered the destroyer, the God of death. Some one who takes upon the task of cleansing the world of it’s evil elements as Rudra. And yet he is also worshipped as the benevolent, and giver of boons. In the Indian context, death and destruction is something associated with Shiva. A God who is peaceful, tranquil, and yet when provoked into a rage, goes on a cosmic dance of destruction of death.

- mc1

Set in a parallel, legal universe in the US, Michael Clayton, invokes the imagery of Shiva, not just in that reference by Arthur( Tom Wilkinson), and Michael Clayton( George Clooney)’s remark in the climax. If we take the US , the legal fraternity is a world of it’s own, it has its own heroes, villians, gods and demons. In a way its a mini universe of its own, with its own ideologies, philosophies and protagonists. People like John Grisham, made an entire career penning novels on this. Some of the greatest classics of American cinema like To Kill a Mocking Bird, 12 Angry Men, And Justice for All, The Verdict were based on a legal backdrop. And in this legal universe belongs Michael Clayton.

Clayton however is not your friendly neighbourhood lawyer, fighting for justice and the underdog. He is more of a fixer, the man who takes on the dirty job of cleaning up the fallout from other cases. If you want some one to do the dirty job of erasing names from a list, or getting permits or greasing the palms of the law, he is the man. Michael is the man who makes sure the prosecutors garnering the limelight, dont spend their time bothering about the back end work. As he says of himself “I am a fixer! i am a bagman”.

For me when i first saw Michael Clayton, and heard the reference to Shiva, i felt maybe director Tony Gilroy, just wanted to put it as a statement. But repeated viewings later, some how just see a lot more metaphorical references here. And it starts off in the opening scene itself. I would rate this as one of the best opening scenes ever, love the way, Gilroy uses a series of shots along with Arthur’s VO to depict something building up. The VO here is absolutely critical, because thats where the director slowly sets up the story, we know that Arthur is desperately seeking out Michael’s help. And the way director places the VO in context of what is being shown, is brilliant. So you have Arthur speaking about “speed of madness” on a camera shot of a xerox machine cranking out high speed copies, and only the name of the firm is visible. Working the graveyard shift in an organisation can be scary at times, you are all alone, surrounded by empty cubicles, and long dark corridors, and the camera work here gives out precisely that feel. In a way the VO metaphorically emphasizes the point that Arthur feels trapped and lonely, he wants to speak out to Michael why he did it. What others perceive as an act of insanity is for him liberating himself from an oppresive universe.


Arthur refers to Michael as “Keeper of Hidden Sins” in the opening lines, again a reference to Shiva, storing the poison, a metaphor for all the sins of the world, in his throat. Michael being the fixer, the janitor is privy to the dirty secrets of the firm’s clients. Surely one of the best opening credits ever.And then the VO and credits stop, as we get into the action. But director Gilroy already achieves the purpose by then of getting me involved into the drama and intrigue. And where is Michael Clayton? Again another brilliant piece of shot taking, as the camera slowly moves up from his personal belongings to show Michael in a Chinese casino. Michael is not God, in fact he never even imagines himself to be so for quite some time. He has a gambling problem, and is seriously in debt to a loan shark. After meeting a client who has fled from an accident scene, he is driving along the road. At one place he stops, just to take a look around the countryside, for no apparent reason, maybe find the purity which he has never seen in his career, dealing with all kinds of scum. And as he is enjoying the country air around him, his car explodes, saving him from death. Yes as they say a Mrityunjaya, the conqueror of death, Clayton here just escapes from his own death. And as Clayton rushes towards the car, we get involved in the story deeper. Why would some one want him dead?

And thats when we come into the intrigue laden drama. Arthur is one of the top most attorneys with Keener, Bach and Leeden, a leading New York legal firm. In the midst of a crucial deposition, Arthur has a sudden mind seizure, and has streaked in front of everyone, which is what the opening VO refers to. As we see Michael learning about Arthur’s act, his VO again comes into the picture, again the reference to Shiva’s storing the poison in his throat

…Six years, Michael! Six years I’ve absorbed this poison! Six years –four hundred depositions — a hundred motions — five changes of venue –
eighty-four thousand documents in

The poison that Arthur refers to here are the deathly secrets of U-North a large agricultural products conglomerate, which has been marketing a spurious herbicide, that has been causing the deaths of people around. The scene between Arthur and Michael in the prison gives an in sight into the problem being faced, as well as the divergence in the outlook of the two. Michael feels that Arthur has become manic, become depressive, while for Arthur its a way of assauging his conscience. Arthur has been the man who was part of the system, but at some time he had to break, considering U-North’s shenigans.


And that brings us to the 3rd angle in the plot, Karen Crowder(Tilda Swinton), the ruthless legal counsel for U-North. Karen is shocked after watching the video of Arthur stripping away, and confronts Michael about the utility of hiring Arthur as a defense counsel. And it does not stop there, she snoops into Arthur’s briefcase to find out that he has the information, that could damage U-North’s credibility further. She sets men to go after him, tap his phones and get him killed. Michael is the one wanting to protect his friend Arthur, while Karen finds him too dangerous.

It is this fascinating interplay between the characters that makes Michael Clayton a cut above the standard legal thriller. Barring the car explosion scene, there is not much physical action in the movie. The tension comes out from the way Michael, Arthur and Karen, indulge in a 3 way chess game, each trying to outwit one another. The scenes showing the way the surveillance team taps the phone of Arthur as well as one of the plaintiffs Anna is chilling. Its as if what you say could be used against you. Michael Clayton has shades of Insider, where Russel Crowe testifies against his own tobacco company, and Al Pacino wages a battle to help him out. We see that especially in the scene where Michael’s boss Marty( director Sydney Pollack) gets a deal with him, to turn over Arthur in return for Michael getting the money to clear his debts off. Marty can’t afford to let Arthur go against U-North, it has been their major client.

Michael Clayton also has fabulous performances the best of the lot being veteran actor Tom Wilkinson as Arthur, especially in the prison scene where he talks to Michael. You can feel his helplessness, his anger at the corrupt system. Tilda Swinton equally brilliant as Karen Crowder, cold, ruthless, unfeeling. George Clooney is as usual good in the title role, of a fixer, who needs to go against the very system he has been part of. Michael Clayton has been criticized for being too slow paced and wordy, but this was a movie that needed it. Its a movie that takes its time to set up the characters, get into their motivations and then their interplay in a gray zone. It is a movie that takes us into the gloomy, dark recesses of the legal universe, where there is no black and white, but only grey.

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