A Look Back: Michael Clayton

A Tale of Realm and Conquest

Brandon Sparks
Jan 30, 2017 · 8 min read
George Clooney as Michael Clayton

When I was sixteen-years-old, I rented Michael Clayton from either my local Blockbuster in order to prep for the upcoming Academy Awards back in the beginning of 2008. I was a big fan of the Ocean’s Eleven series, so in turn I was a big fan of George Clooney…or so I thought. When the end credits rolled on Michael Clayton, I only had one thought on my mind, “Man, I hated that movie”. I strongly disliked this movie a decade ago, but I cannot really tell you why. I remember a few of my high school teachers at the time talked about how much they loved it and I just remember saying, “I didn’t get it. I thought it was terrible. It was over my head”.

In my sixteen-year-old self’s eyes, the reputation George Clooney had with me was starting to suffer. After Michael Clayton, Clooney released forgettable films like Leatherheads and The Men Who Stare at Goats. I finally came back to the Clooney Club when Up in the Air was released, and I’ve stayed with him ever since, even during his misfires.

I’ve gone on thinking Michael Clayton is a terrible film, and I hated it so much that I never wanted to re-watch it. My good friend Ben Goertz has ranted and raved about the greatness of Tony Gilroy and Michael Clayton ever since I’ve known him. But, even after hearing plenty of praise, I was never tempted to revisit it. I felt like the opinion I had when I was sixteen-years-old was the correct one because — let’s be honest — we always think we’re much smarter than we actually are when we’re younger.

Re-Watch (Spoilers Ahead)

As the ending credits started to roll to Michael Clayton for the second time in my life, two things came to my mind. The first thing was, “It’s official, I was stupid when I was sixteen-years-old.” The second thing was, “Wow, that was a great film.”

Before sitting down to watch the movie, there were moments from the film that I could remember, but I honestly couldn’t remember what the film was about. So, it felt like I was watching the film for the first time. The film holds up because of an incredibly crafted script from writer/director Tony Gilroy and impressive performances from the entire cast.

Tony Gilroy knocked it out of the park with his directorial debut. The script for this film is a textbook example of a great screenplay. Gilroy takes a non-linear approach for the opening, landing us in the middle of the action. We actually start at Michael Clayton’s lowest point, but we don’t realize it yet. We are introduced to Clayton as he is playing poker in some shady but high-rolling spot that feels like it was lifted from Rounders. As we later find out, gambling is an addiction for Michael. This is his lowest point, because as everything around him is starting to crumble, he falls back into his addiction.

When the scenes from the opening reappear in the film, we see a shorter version of them with a whole new context. We now realize that Michael is a character who hates himself and what he has become. He hates what he does, and he hates that bad people benefit from his actions while good people suffer. His dream of opening a restaurant with his brother failed miserably, and now he’s lost thousands of dollars and his relationship with his brother. He was an attorney earlier in life, but he gave that up to be a fixer, or as he calls it, a “janitor”. An innocent community is suffering because of the greed and corruption from the corporation his law firm is protecting.

If you are a young screenwriter, this is a great film to study. Gilroy introduces all of the major players in the story in memorable and character-revealing way. The first we see of Karen Crowder (played by Tilda Swinton, who won an Oscar for her performance) is when she is hiding in a bathroom stall, sweating nervously as everyone wonders where she went during the negotiations of a major settlement. She is the antagonist of the film, but because she is introduced to us in such a vulnerable way, we can sympathize with her. Simon Lund Larsen covers something similar in his piece called “Economical Exposition in Michael Clayton.

The script also does a great job of planting and paying off objects, like the book Michael’s son gives him: Realm & Conquest. Gilroy shows us an object early in the story and brings it back later in the film with a new meaning and level of importance. The book Michael’s son gives him might seem like a small piece of information, or just a prop in a simple moment showing us that Michael ignores his son, but in actuality, it ends up tying many pieces of the story together.

The acting throughout the film is superb. It is easily one of Clooney’s greatest performances. His charisma as an actor fits perfectly with the character of Michael Clayton. It’s Clooney’s movie and story, but Tom Wilkinson steals almost every scene he is in. His character suffers from bipolar disorder, and seems like the craziest person in the film, but in reality he might be the only sane and compassionate character. Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, an attorney Michael is assigned to protect because he is going through a mental breakdown. Arthur is the lead attorney for U-North, a corporation the firm is representing in a class-action case. He feels guilty for representing the wrong people while trying to punish the innocent ones, a sentiment that Clayton begins to have as well.

Tilda Swinton doesn’t have many scenes with Clooney or Wilkinson, but she still manages to own every moment. Her quiet, private moments are where she excels, as her façade slowly crumbles. Many of her decisions are subtle ones, but they are not small. She straightens her clothes as a nervous tick. These little ticks and quirks are what make a written character a human character.

Often overshadowed by this stellar cast, Sydney Pollock also turns in an incredible performance. He’s an actor who just feels authentic, even when he’s a playing a terrible, corrupt person.

Michael Clayton is a legal thriller and a great conspiracy film, but it’s really a redemption story at heart. It is a tale of redemption for Michael Clayton. The final third act of the film is Michael trying to right all of the wrongs that he has made in both his professional and personal life. The final shot of the film is Michael Clayton sitting a taxi with nowhere to go and nothing to do. All of his debts are paid, his fixer career is over, and all of his grudges have been settled. He is free for the first time in a long time.

Is It Important Now?

The biggest person we have to talk about here is Tony Gilroy. Tony has played a large part in a couple of high-profile films since the release of Michael Clayton. He was the lead writer of the Bourne Identity series before he even made Michael Clayton, but he would later go on to co-write and direct the spin-off film, The Bourne Legacy. He also later produced his brother’s, Dan Gilroy, directorial debut, Nightcrawler, which is considered one of the best films of 2014.

The biggest film Tony Gilroy has been a part of since Michael Clayton, however, is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s easy to say that if Gilroy did not do Michael Clayton or the Bourne series, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be involved in the making of Rogue One. We don’t know exactly how much Gilroy contributed, but we do know that he was heavily involved in making Rogue One what it ended up being. The Hollywood Reporter said that Gilroy was being paid $200,000 a week to help complete the film and the final number he was paid was somewhere north of $5 million.

It is known, however, that he headed up all of the reshoots for the film instead of Gareth Edwards, the credited director on the movie. Supposedly Gilroy had heavy influence over the final Death Star heist sequence, which is easily the strongest sequence in the film in my opinion. Gilroy also reportedly “supervised” the entire post-production phase of the film. Rumors say that he had just as much input, if not more so, than Gareth Edwards. And guess who helped edit Rogue One…John Gilroy, Tony’s brother and editor of Michael Clayton. The dark tone and themes of redemption from Michael Clayton are definitely present throughout Rogue One. Without Gilroy’s experience with Michael Clayton, the first outing in the Star Wars standalone franchise might have gone down a much different way.

George Clooney has had some great success as an actor since the release of Michael Clayton, including Oscar nominations for his performances in Up in the Air and The Descendants. His biggest success came as a producer when he won an Academy Award for Best Picture for producing Ben Affleck’s Argo. Recently, however, Clooney has been going through a little bit of a slump. In the past few years, he has released a number of box office and critical failures. From Tomorrowland to Money Monster and from The Monuments Men to Suburbicon, Clooney has not been hitting it out of the park at late. Hopefully he will return to form with his upcoming limited series adaptation of Catch-22 on Hulu.

Michael Clayton was released over a decade ago, but it still continues to hold up incredibly well. The script is phenomenal and the acting is close to perfect. It’s a film about a man who finally decides to do what is right instead what is easy, even if it means he loses everything he has worked for. Michael Clayton is a tale of redemption, and that’s something that will forever be relevant.

Re-Evaluation Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Next Up: American Gangster

Want more from CineNation?

Subscribe, Like, and Follow us on iTunes, Spotify, Facebook, and Twitter!


CineNation is a multi-media conversation connecting lovers of television and film from around the world

Brandon Sparks

Written by

Storyteller, Podcaster, and Video Store Loyalist


CineNation is a multi-media conversation connecting lovers of television and film from around the world