The title says it all.
Michael Clayton: I am not the enemy.
Arthur Edens: Then who are you?
I can't remember when I was quite as thrilled with an American thriller as I was with Michael Clayton, an eco-melodrama in which big corporations and some littler people become entangled in profits and ethics from every angle. This edge-of-the seater is propelled by the tensions surrounding a giant agricorporation's dangerous chemicals, the farmers who use their chemicals, the jury deciding the damages, and the law firm defending the corporation.
So far you're not impressed, and rightly so because it's a story told everyday in real life and fiction. My attention was kept by the characters, the fine details of suffering and surfing through an ethical tidal wave that isn't easily distilled into good or bad. The protagonist, Michael Clayton (George Clooney), is a "fixer" for the big law firm but not as smooth or accomplished as you might expect. He has lost his retirement nest egg to a bad investment in a bar with his alcoholic brother, his precocious son and he have a complicated relationship frequently interrupted by his work, and the lingering agrilawsuit has put his career in jeopardy as a senior partner and personal friend, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suddenly goes berserk, endangering the case and their lives.
Not that there's anything really wrong except Michael's growing awareness of the firm's bottom-line attitude, ignoring the awareness that its client may be murdering people and the environment with its fertilizer. Michael's slow devolution from a can-do guy fixing clients' messes to an operative enabling mass murder is gently and inexorably presented by director/writer Tony Gilroy, whose Bourne trilogy is reflected in the smooth juxtapositioning of plot strands, aided by the nimble editing of his brother, John.
It is, of course, an existential story with a protagonist finding out what kind of a human being he is. At no point except the end is it certain he knows any more than we do.
The acting is ensemble perfect, a foursome you'd love to play golf or euchre with (Clooney, Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton as chief counsel to the corporation, and Sydney Pollack as the law firm's co-founder). Although the ending is boilerplate resolution, Michael remains a fascinating study of the troubled legal conscience. The title says it all: This film is about a man, just like any other man, surviving in a jungle Upton Sinclair would understand. Sophisticated stuff this?cerebration and action, a bit like that Bourne Ultimatum come to think of it.