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Truth to power

Movies | Conscience fights quest for self-preservation in Michael Clayton

Issue: "States' rights," Oct. 27, 2007

"The time is now!" proclaims corporate defense attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) in the voice-over monologue that opens Michael Clayton. We're not sure what's happening to him as we listen to this announcement. He's decided that he needs to set right all the bad things that he's done, but he's also raving, talking about a vision that has forced him to realize his sinfulness. He has a history of mental illness-is he going crazy? Is he having an attack of conscience? Is it something else?

In the world where Michael Clayton (George Clooney, above) lives, losing your marbles and trying to redress your wrongs are pretty much the same thing. Writer/director Tony Gilroy's film, rated R (for language and some sexual dialogue, plus one scene of bloodless-but scary-violence and the kind of percussive swearing that drenches Wall Street where Michael and Arthur work), follows Michael as he first tries to contain, then to aid Arthur. Michael's life is already on the skids. He's taken a chance by employing his deadbeat brother and lost his shirt on that bet. Michael doesn't really have a title at the prestigious law firm that employs him; he's Kenner Bach & Ledeen's all-purpose fixer. He makes problems go away quietly, whether they're hit-and-run offenses or mental collapses in the deposition room.

The problem complicating Michael's life is that Arthur may actually have been arguing the wrong side of a case for six years and thousands of billable hours. "Who cares?" seems to be the war cry of his boss Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), but Michael hasn't quite sold his soul, and, against his sense of self-preservation, he starts to pick up the trail where Arthur eventually has to leave off. The forces trying to destroy the truth (represented by Tilda Swinton's evil CEO) are bigger and stronger than Michael and Arthur, but every time those forces come close to winning, a photocopy or a briefcase or a folder slips through the cracks, and Michael's conscience drags him, kicking and screaming, to defend it. "The truth will out" seems to be this expertly written and acted movie's mantra, and ultimately, the luck that seems to be Michael's only ally starts to look more like providence.

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