Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 10, 2007

Michael Clayton

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

While not quite deserving of the extravagant praise doled out by critics, “Michael Clayton” is one of the better films I have seen this year. Obviously influenced by thrillers such as “The Pelican Brief” or “The Constant Gardener” that dramatize struggles between crusaders and corrupt multinationals, “Michael Clayton” is far more interesting as a psychological study than as an intricately plotted cat and mouse game.

Since it is clear from the start that the corporation–in this case a Monsanto type agribusiness called uNorth that is foisting carcinogenic fertilizer on unsuspecting small farmers–is guilty as charged, the suspense factor is almost entirely missing. What drives the plot forward is the interaction between the film’s eponymous lead character played most effectively by George Clooney–an attorney assigned to “mopping up” operations often of an unethical nature–and all the other leading characters.

Like Humphrey Bogart in one of his classic jaded hero movies, Michael Clayton starts off as indifferent to the larger moral problems of American society and bent mostly on solving some urgent personal problems involving major debts to a loan shark. After seeing corporate malfeasance in action, including the murder of an old friend and colleague, he decides to take on the forces of evil–all in all, a very old-fashioned morality tale.

During a litigation session, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the lawyer defending uNorth, begins to speak irrationally and disrobe. After pursuing the plaintiffs in nothing but his socks in the parking lot outside the courthouse, he is arrested and jailed in the Corn Belt town where the litigation has been proceeding for a number of years. Their law firm dispatches Michael Clayton on a corporate jet to salvage the situation. It seems that Edens, suffering from bipolar disorder, has gone off his meds. But he is not too irrational to muddle the main point he wants to make to Clayton and to anybody else who will listen. During the litigation process, he has come across a letter from a uNorth research scientist warning the company that the fertilizer was toxic, which it chose to ignore in pursuit of profits. Clearly, this is a film that has its fingers on the pulse of the American economy today.

Like one of the “rogue” lawyers in the military in Guantanamo who have decided to risk jail rather than collaborate with police state abuses, Edens decides to defect to the side of the plaintiffs and make their case using the damning evidence that he has just turned up. When uNorth finds out, they pay security contractors, who seem modeled on Blackwater, to kill him and make it look like a suicide. After Clayton’s suspicions are aroused, he breaks into Edens’s Soho loft and stumbles across the scientist’s warnings and evidence that the suicide was actually a murder. This leads the killers to target Clayton as well. After narrowly escaping a car bombing, he turns the tables on the corporation and the movie ends on a happy note.

Although I am not really a great judge of acting, I will go out on a limb and say that Clooney is the finest male actor working today. In scene after scene, he communicates the essence of his character through voice and gesture. Michael Clayton is a very recognizable type in the legal profession and Clooney has obviously figured out who is character is and how to bring him to life. As the son of a cop and a graduate of Fordham law school, Clayton is very much the blue-collar success story. But success has eluded him. A gambling addiction and foolish investments in a restaurant with his junkie brother have left him hovering on the edge of disaster like many Americans today. When given the choice to keep his mouth shut in exchange for a cash payout that will solve all his money problems, he does what any decent American would do–namely, confront the evil in his midst.

Leaving aside the absence of suspense, in itself not a big problem given the overall goals of the writer and director, there are a couple of missteps that are worth mentioning. The chief villain in the film is uNorth’s chief corporate counsel, a woman named Karen Crowder who comes across as the embodiment of yuppie greed and ambition, and who is the liaison with the murderous security force. If it is not enough to hear her making unctuous defenses of her employer, all the while being aware of their guilt, she is also photographed in the most unflattering manner. In scene after scene, the camera focuses on her middle-aged flab as if to say that this is almost as much of a sin as hiring killers.

That Karen Crowder is played by the great Tilda Swinton is a credit to her skills. So persuasive was she as the creepy corporate counsel that I had no idea it was Swinton. Swinton is the supremely intelligent British actress whose most vivid performance was in Sally Potter’s masterpiece “Orlando.” Perhaps Tony Gilroy, the director and screenwriter for “Michael Clayton, was trying to avoid clichés by making the bad guy a bad woman, but there was something a bit too sexist about it all.

Finally, it has to be said that the almost inevitable decision to make the corporation resort to murder undermines the credibility of the film. Since any such film today has to operate according to the conventions of drama, an old-fashioned villain is necessary. And what can be more villainous than murder? However, after Michael Clayton’s car was blown up, I began fidgeting in my seat and whispering to myself under my breath. What kind of corporation would take such enormous risks to stave off financial collapse? If you are convicted of murder, you go to prison for life or in the case of corporate big-shots, ten years at least. If you go bankrupt, however, federal laws favoring the corporation will protect you from the kind of ruin that awaits ordinary citizens, as the aftermath of Enron would indicate.

More to the point, the justice system of today would never make the uNorth’s of the world worry about a thing based on the Merck/Vioxx settlement announced in the NY Times today, which involved exactly the same issues as “Michael Clayton”:

At a fraction of the price that analysts initially estimated it would pay, Merck, one of the largest American drug makers, hopes to put one of the most troubling episodes in its history behind it.

The settlement amount it announced yesterday, $4.85 billion, represents only about nine months of profit for Merck, whose stock rose 2.3 percent on news of the agreement, even as the broader stock market was sharply lower. Two years ago, some analysts estimated that Merck would have to pay as much as $25 billion to settle Vioxx claims.

It appears that the same kind of pro-market forces that have undermined the welfare state and widened the gap between rich and poor in the US have also made legal action against corporate crime less effective:

More broadly, the case shows that after years of aggressively lobbying against trial lawyers, corporate America has regained substantial leverage against plaintiffs and their lawyers — whose lawsuits bankrupted Dow Corning and the asbestos industry in the 1990s. In many states, changes governing lawsuits have made claims tougher to bring and win, while much public opinion has turned against plaintiffs.

Of course, the NY Times neglects to point out that none of the big time operators in Dow Corning or the asbestos industry ended up begging for change on the streets of American cities. After “reorganizing,” Down Corning is back in business today and operating in exactly those places in the world where it will not have to worry about lawsuits:

As part of its geographic expansion, Dow Corning is putting “a top priority” on investing in Russia, India, and China, Burns says. The company recently opened an application center in Moscow to provide local technical and market expertise for customers throughout Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. It is also building a silicones finishing unit at Pune, India, scheduled to start up in 2006. The plant will manufacture silicone-based polymers, lubricants, sealants, and emulsions. The site will also include an applications engineering technical services lab.

–Chemical Week, March 29, 2006

Meanwhile, the poor souls who took Vioxx will have very little to show for their efforts according to the NY Times:

Of course, what is good news for Merck may be less so for the patients who suffered heart attacks or strokes after taking Vioxx. Depending on how many claims are filed to the settlement fund, those people will receive payments averaging about $120,000 each before legal fees and expenses, which could swallow about 40 percent of their payments.

Imagine that. You lose a loved one because they take some medicine that is supposed to prolong their life and then you are “compensated” to the tune of $80,000 after legal fees and expenses. This is the real killing taking place in America today and there is no Hollywood film that can ever really expose it. To really understand it and to take action on it, you need to sit down and read a socialist analysis. As the contradictions of the American economy deepen, there might come a day when ordinary working people are driven to seek out such an analysis. As Marx once said, “The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Surely, the 21st century will vindicate Marx’s prediction or the world will be destroyed if our movement is not up to the task that faces it.


  1. I think you overlooked a few points, Louis. The Swinton character was portrayed as insecure and hyperambitious; she undertook the attempt to get rid of Clayton on her own. I found it an authentic touch to place the corporate directorate out of the loop in what you correctly characterize as an unrealistic level of risk, and to show the effects of the corporate imperative on a quirky individual who goes over the top, as so often happens.


    Comment by Stuart Newman — November 10, 2007 @ 7:07 pm

  2. Was she supposed to be quirky? I just assumed that like any corporate counsel she takes her cues from those who pay her. Maybe there was a scene in which it became obvious that she was acting on her own. If so, I must have missed it. Also, the private cops that she hired surely would have tipped off her bosses if what she was doing was so out of line, right? When you kill somebody for pay, it is a very risky business. Unless, of course, you are in Iraq where the lives of Arabs comes cheap.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 10, 2007 @ 7:14 pm

  3. Bravo Proyect. I saw the movie and then re-saw it to valuable effect through his discussion. One could view the murder angle as predictive — another bar soon to be lowered. I’d like to see a movie about the many tens of thousands of Americans killed annually by hospital staff who prefer not to wash their hands. J.

    Comment by J. Marlin — November 11, 2007 @ 9:24 pm

  4. […] 4. Michael Clayton–reviewed here […]

    Pingback by 2007 Film Notes « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 7, 2007 @ 10:51 pm

  5. […] in 2007 I reviewed “Michael Clayton“, a movie that like so many others in this genre (“Pelican Brief”, “The […]

    Pingback by Big Boys Gone Bananas!*; You’ve been Trumped « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 25, 2012 @ 9:50 pm

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