Earlier this year, Shooter watched a confident, capable protagonist discover that he’d applied his talents to the ends of corrupt overlords, and then fly, Condorlike, from those who would erase his traces, with the aim of exposing their wrongdoings. Michael Clayton is the urban, white-collar brother to Shooter’s awakened Red-Stater Bob Lee Swagger, swapping scruffy, flannel-wrapped roughneck Mark Wahlberg for gray-templed, sharp-suited palm-greaser George Clooney; government black ops for private-sector malfeasance; and action film pyromania for the fast-n-low boardroom-speak of the paranoia thriller.
Corporate law, where all real issues are swaddled in procedural arcana, is the ideal locus for a malignant MacGuffin (whereas Shooter’s revelation of a human-rights travesty enacted by the military-industrial complex seemed almost hilariously quaint). It takes off-his-meds litigator Tom Wilkinson to rant loose the awful truth (old news to fans of “The Awful Truth”) about an agricorp class-action suit defended by his firm; Clooney is Clayton, variously described as the firm’s “fixer” and “janitor,” stung to inquiry by Wilkinson’s mouth-of-babes crazytalk, and to introspection by festering familial wounds.
Like Shooter, Michael Clayton’s zeitgeist indignation is symptomatic, not diagnostic: writer-helmer Tony Gilroy, making his directorial debut after footracing down the corridors of power as a scribe-for-hire for the Bourne movies, is as earnestly distraught as his delayed-release-conscience-stricken protag, even staging a moral accounting as a return-to-nature interlude. (Also like Shooter, it patronizes its women, though more inadvertently: as the house counsel whose take-charge flailings wreak dire consequences, Tilda Swinton squirms in her token seat in the boys’ club.) Still, he’s learned from the best: come Clayton’s ultimate self-confrontation, Gilroy has Clooney reenact Bob Hoskins’ backseat reckoning from The Long Good Friday.