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Kinds of Success

What we hear first is a man's voice ranting, telling a nightmarish story that very quickly makes no sense. What we see is the camera traveling through a long suite of slick offices, all of them empty. The voice vaults and leaps in florid phrases. The offices are cool, angular, affectless. Then the voice fades as the camera slides into a large, brightly lit room crammed with people working hectically. This opening sequence presents figuratively the spectrum of Michael Clayton, though of course we cannot yet know it.

The author of the film--"author" here has its usual meaning along with what film theorists mean by auteur--was Tony Gilroy. This is his directing debut. He has been a screenwriter, having written, among others, the Bourne trilogy, Dolores Claiborne (from a Stephen King murder novel), and The Devil's Advocate, about manic lawyers. I saw the first Bourne and the last two pictures and admired the skill. This time, however, Gilroy has moved very impressively beyond skill.

The offices that we first see here are those of a giant legal firm. Gilroy says that he got the idea for Michael Clayton when he was doing research for The Devil's Advocate. He was struck by, among other things, the Himalayan size of the firms and the heat and coils and writhings behind the professional sangfroid. The title character of his new film is a lawyer who is a member of one of those giant firms but whose work is semi-detached. He deals with touchy matters brought about by the various doings of the behemoth. Many a gangster picture has had a character called a "cleaner," a member of the gang whose job is to rid a crime scene of clues, witnesses, and mess that might involve the gang. Strictly legally, Michael Clayton, called a "fixer," does somewhat analogous work.

Clayton is first seen trying to extract an important client from a hit-and-run stupidity. Clayton's calm and the client's panic and anger are tokens of much that is to come in a larger-scale disaster. Part of the disaster is that the chief litigator of Clayton's firm, Arthur Edens, a master in his field, is temporarily out of his mind. (It is Edens's voice that we hear at the start.) His colleagues have long known that Edens is a manic-depressive and have relied on his medications, plus their own good luck, to carry them through. But the firm is reaching the crux of a $3 billion suit against a client, a big chemical company charged with knowingly selling a toxic weed killer. Clayton is assigned to bring Edens around to competence again--to resume his medications, for instance--so that he can defend their client.

The film takes place in four days, during which Clayton has even more than Edens on his hands--a personal business debt with some dangerous creditors, an alcoholic brother, his relations with his small son and estranged wife. He must also deal with Karen Crowder, chief counsel for the chemical company, who has ambitions and problems of her own.

All these matters and more sizzle through the course of the film like fuses leading to an explosion. In fact, there is a literal explosion early in the film, and most of the picture is a flashback that leads us to the reason for it. The finish of Gilroy's script reminds us of a device that Oliver Stone used in Wall Street. Even the basic story shape is not novel--the corruption in a powerful group that acts on one member of the group as a purgative.

But Gilroy's talent vitalizes and deepens his material. His dialogue is so pungent, so speakable, so true of the speaker, that sometimes we feel we ourselves are the person uttering those words. In many scenes the dialogue-- there are no "beautiful" lines--almost seems to blend with the visual to form a texture of a special dimension.

This texture depends naturally on the abilities of the cast, who are uniformly up to it. Arthur Edens is played by Tom Wilkinson, the English actor now transatlantic. He was (to select only two roles) a gnarled Victorian aristo in Wilde and a quiet Maine doctor in In the Bedroom. Here his deranged Edens comes close to convincing us, as the deranged can do, that he is normal and we are aberrant. As a top executive of the law firm, Sydney Pollack, best known for his directing but who also acts, again provides his appealing growly weight. Tilda Swinton, as Karen Crowder, is as aloof as she has been in previous films (Orlando, etc.), but much more comprehensibly so. Here, still at some distance, she creates a woman who belongs where she is.

Then there is George Clooney. (A sentence that will be written, I hope, for many years to come.) He plays Clayton with ease and verity, with the knowledge that he has a unique presence and therefore need not push. Clooney is becoming something more than a star--a position that Robert Redford wanted but didn't quite get. Redford was not content to loll on magazine covers as a sex symbol: he wanted to elevate himself above moneyed glitz. But most of his film choices were not very bright. (His Sundance project is a quite different matter.) Clooney has all of Redford's stardom and much better judgment. He moves along engagingly from open entertainment (the Ocean pictures) to Syriana and Michael Clayton, creating as he goes a niche that he alone can fill. The only comparable recent film figure is Jack Nicholson, who, too, is something more than a star.

About Tony Gilroy, how can one feel anything but pleasure? He has clearly used his previous writing jobs as something more than provender. Acuteness, tension, sidewise humor, intrinsic pace are now at his command. He has a tendency to stuff: there are strands in this picture meant to give it body that only take time (Clayton's ailing father, or a Midwestern teenager that Edens gets tangled with). And there is a sequence in the film--Clayton stops his car in the country and walks up through a pasture to three horses that are standing there--that seems too overtly a contrast with the tenor of his life. But that moment is concluded with a shock.

In any case, Gilroy's film is distinguished beyond its components by its purpose, its compassion, its interest--increasingly manifest--in the soul. Ultimately this is a drama about the fierce struggle for success by people who will never stop struggling for it even though they know it is hollow. In Conrad's Victory, an elderly man warns his young son of the dangers that can lie in belief; the youth, stricken, asks, "What is one to do, then?" The father says, "Look on--make no sound." Some of us almost wish we could obey. Gilroy, however, looks on at these men strapped to a sterile belief, and, luckily for us, he cannot help making a sound.

A bow, too, to his directing, which is imaginative but not showy. The sharp editor was John Gilroy, Tony's brother. I noted only one unnecessary shot, a close-up of Clooney: the rest of the brothers' work is sure storytelling. (Their father is the Pulitzer-winning playwright Frank D. Gilroy, who cannot be too glum these days.)

In 1969, when Golda Meir reached the highest office of her life, Time put a photo of her on its cover. Underneath was the line: "Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel." Below that was the line: "Grandma Moses."

Now, in the same congenial vein, comes a film called Golda's Balcony, adapted from the play by William Gibson, which I saw on Broadway in 1977. The play had--besides its star, Anne Bancroft--several supporting actors. In this film Valerie Harper plays Golda and all the other characters that are needed, but those others are done only in a suggestive style, without costume or makeup. Harper simply speaks the other one's lines in the other one's place, with some vocal shift.

This is a film that we know, once we hear the title, must be a panegyric. But it is an exceptionally authentic one. Differing views that we may have about Israel and Zionism, about Israeli-Arab conflicts, are overcome at least for ninety-two minutes by this warm-stern-wry portrait of a dedicated woman. Experts on her biography (which I am not) may have differences with the portrait, especially about the nuclear matters that arise, but the biographical facts are irresistible.

Meir's life need not be summarized here. Let's note only that she was born in Kiev, raised in Milwaukee, and emigrated to Palestine to work toward Israel, and that this journey bristled with obstacles that took their toll but could not stop her. The film begins in the prime minister's office on Yom Kippur 1973, the first day of the now-legendary war. Meir's strenuous activities during that day are interwoven with bits of her past that brought her to this place, this burden, this chance.

The director, Jeremy Kagan, who has done several features and much television, concentrates here on keeping the screen interesting despite the space limitations of the piece. (It takes place mostly in Meir's office.) Backgrounds flash by, decoratively or informatively; lighting coruscates and emphasizes; Meir's references to people and places get visual referents.

But of course the film depends on Valerie Harper's performance. The role is in a sense audience-insured, but that should not detract from the fact that Harper is splendid. She played Golda in a one-year tour of the William Gibson play, and she has mastered every inflection and gesture. A double pleasure of good acting then follows: we never feel that this Golda Meir is anything but genuine at the same time that we appreciate Harper's finesse. It is a lovely piece of work, and it fulfills its intent--a tribute and an embrace.

Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.

By Stanley Kauffmann