HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 15, 2007
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Michael Clayton

John Turner


Michael Clayton is not as great a movie as you think it is while watching it. But, even so, it's quite good.

The basic plot is commonplace. Yet, it's put together in such diverting snippets that you think you're seeing something far more complex than it actually turns out to be. The basic story is corporate corruption and how the officials in major companies will do anything -- literally anything -- to maintain their power, position, and profits. Is there anybody in America who doesn't know that?

If the acting in the film weren't so good, the story would descend to the merely ordinary. But led by George Clooney, as a lawyer who cleans up messes for a huge law firm, virtually every one of the major players turns in a fascinating performance.

When I come out of a movie like Michael Clayton, I always wonder how other people have seen it. Is it, for most of them, simply a diverting fiction or do they view it as a dramatic depiction of reality. And if the latter what does it make them think about the society in which they are pursuing their existence? Do most American citizens perceive their economic and political culture as a stew of fetid corruption, or not? Or, do they just not think about it very much?

Michael Clayton is a tale of driven, ambitious, knowledgeable, savvy people, operating at the pinnacle of American business, who, evidently, have never had a serious thought in their lives. How else could you explain the lead lawyer of a major corporation deciding to hire professional murderers to wipe out two attorneys of the principal law firm her company employs? This is not a thing done by a person of balanced mind. Leaving morality aside -- as the child's play these characters take it to be -- how could a sane person invite that degree of risk for a gain consisting of nothing but position and money? These are people who have succumbed to some sort of monstrous religion whose theology is even more goofy than the doctrines of the most bizarre cults. Still, it is portrayed as the ruling value system of the American business environment.

I guess you could say that what they're trying to cover up -- a product that has poisoned hundreds of people and that is known to them as a poison -- is worse than two petty murders. And, if you said so, you would doubtless be right. But that simply pushes the questions back one more level. What kind of people do things like this? And if we come to view them as typical operatives in the big money game, what does that say about us?

I suppose questions of this kind trickle in some way through the minds of most film viewers. But they don't appear to rise to full consciousness. The typical fans probably think something like, "Well it's just a story but, you know, it probably is like that." And, then, they munch away at their popcorn, which they purchased, along with two cokes, as a value pack for only twelve dollars.


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