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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Thoughts (and SPOILERS) on Michael Clayton

I read the Michael Clayton script and finally saw the film. I agree with my budding screenwriter wife, Kate, that it's excellent, at least for a Hollywood film.

Thoughts, including MANY SPOILERS:
  • The father-son speech after the encounter with Uncle Timmy, especially the son's stoic reaction, is powerful. The son, Henry, is a well-written, well-directed and well-acted character--he seems like a real 10 year-old, in that he has his own life and personality, and does not merely exist to fit into his parents' plans (in contrast to, say, the son in Jaws, who also has a touching scene with his father but who, typically of Steven Spielberg's child characters, never shows signs of resistance, impatience or scatterbrainedness).

  • If you think about it, Uncle Timmy must have been sitting alone in his car, outside his brother's home, with all his siblings and his father inside celebrating his father's birthday, for hours. Scary. This should have been highlighted more clearly by the film.

  • The secret-agent killer pair show remarkable resourcefulness, care and precision in killing Arthur Edens. Why then does their plan to kill Michael involve something so crude and obviously murderous as a car bomb?

  • The agents' botched GPS-hacking/bomb-planting job seems to have essentially no consequences; sure, the killers have trouble tracking Michael, and have to guess at whether or not he's alone in his car, but since the plan was basically to trigger the car bomb anyway, it's hard to see how much better the job would have gone if it was not botched; the botching wasn't necessary to set up the movie magic of the horses/explosion moment.

  • I imagine that good, tightly-formed thriller stories must be hard to write; Tony Gilroy is clearly one of the best in the game, but in the end, Michael Clayton falls back on a big genre crutch: the sting that solves everything. But several elements don't make sense.
    1. First, Tilda Swinton's character (Karen Crowder) implies a very damning set of admissions (in particular, the attempted assassinations), but she doesn't explicitly make any admissions that would hold water in court (at least as far as my "Law and Order" watching informs me). (A much better reveal at the end could have been set up involving the film's McGuffin, the "Memo #229", which seems like it really would have the power that the film needs it to have for dramatic purposes.)
    2. Second, if a large number of police entered an office building without invitation from management, security would notify all the bigwigs at their big meeting, right? It just doesn't make sense that Karen Crowder would be so blindsided by Michael and tons of cops while she's in the office.
    3. Third and most glaring, why would anyone think that Michael is dead? Because his phone and watch are found in his burnt car? No one would report him dead until his car is found; and as soon as police find the car, won't they see that there is no body inside? I don't see why he'd be considered dead by the law firm, not to mention the professional killers, who presumably follow up on these things.

  • The cop brother's final speech to Michael (after he gets out of being held for entering the crime scene) doesn't make sense. Michael's problem is not that he's gaming the lawyers to believe he's like a cop (and he's not trying to fool himself), it's that he is bad with money, avoids thinking about who his work hurts, lets problems in his own life spiral long after he'd fix them if they were other people's problems, and chooses costly forms of showing loyalty (going into business with Timmy, paying expensive bribes) over cheap ones that would require him to let his guard down (actually listening to Arthur or Henry, spending time with his extended family). His mistakes with cops are just the result of desperation caused by these unrelated (to the police) problems. The film works so hard to build up complex tensions in his character, but when it has a chance to summarize its themes (in his brother's voice) they sound like they're lifted from a different movie.

  • The "Realm & Conquest" theme, which has so much potential, ultimately fails to matter beyond being used as an unconvincing plot point (recognizing the books helps Michael stumble onto Arther's photocopying receipt)

  • In the script, but cut from the film, there is a scene where Michael explains to a woman at the firm whom he's sleeping with about what it is, exactly, that he does. It gives a much fuller picture of the intense history Michael has within the firm than anything you see in the movie. The big fixer scene at the beginning of the film, in Westchester, is notable in the movie for how little effort Michael puts into his fixing--the point, once we see the scene the second time, is that his heart isn't in it anymore. Since in the film you never get the background that shows what Michael was like in his prime, this change is not as clear as it should be.

  • In the script, Tony Gilroy tries to move the plot forward without dwelling on details; for instance, he writes that the first time you see Tilda Swinton's character reading the McGuffin memo, the camera need not dwell on the memo but simply communicate the weight and danger she sees in it. Reading the script, I wondered how information this subtle could be communicated without going ahead and dwelling on the memo; and sure enough, in the film Gilroy decides to dwell on the memo after all. It's interesting that the screenwriter, as often happens, wants to reign in the director's impulse to write with direction what the screenwriter hasn't written with dialogue, and that the director, as often happens too, feels the screenplay isn't complete without his added writing in violation of the screenplay's instructions--and that both were the same man.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Mar 09, 08:45:00 PM:
Another possible Law and Order-type procedural problem with the sting at the end is that Tilda Swinton is making these damning admissions to her lawyer. Aren't these protected as confidential communications? Or maybe they're not, because she's so far off the reservation, and his client is the company and not her personally. In any case, my confusion over whether she'd really given the game away took away from the impact of the scene.
Blogger Ben on Sun Mar 09, 11:16:00 PM:
Interesting, didn't think about that. Since threats of violence and other such matters are not covered by confidentiality agreements--that is, the state can at least compel a lawyer to say, under oath, whether his client is *currently* planning to hurt someone or herself, and can jail a lawyer who knew that information and didn't tell the police, I would imagine that confidentiality won't protect her. But the legality of the eavesdropping is suspect. And she has an entrapment argument and a physical duress argument, because he was intimidating her physically and verbally. So in terms of criminal charges, she, and the company, are not ruined. But since the burden of proof and of admission of evidence is far lower in civil cases, the indigent plaintiffs in the lawsuit can presumably use her confession and the memo to strengthen their chances of winning or negotiate a more favorable settlement.

Whew! Not quite the clear ending the movie tries to achieve.