George Clooney's rise to the top of the left-leaning Hollywood food chain is an archetypal story, trading on his good looks and Cary Grant mystique to score high profile roles in forgettable action thrillers and blockbusters like Batman and Robin and The Peacemaker to steadily amass clout he now puts to ingenious good use.
With his star power cemented, Clooney now moves between projects with a strong political conscience and something to say (Syriana, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) experimental filmmaking (Solaris) and multiplex-friendly good time romps (the Oceans Eleven series).
Michael Clayton sits firmly in the centre of Clooney's 'message' and 'fun' movies. It's a corporate corruption thriller with tones of the 1970s movement that produced establishment-baiting films like Three Days of the Condor and Parallax View. It takes us on a thrilling ride while peeling back the veneer of the moneyed classes to show us the deadly self-interest huge amounts of money demands.
Clooney is the titular law firm fixer sent in to clean up the messes wrought by high-powered clients of his firm, but his latest case is far more dangerous. His firm's star litigator Arthur (Wilkinson), a manic depressive who snaps from the pressure of a career of covering up filthy dealings, tears his clothes off and runs amok during a videotaped deposition against the firm's star client, giant food production services provider Unorth.
Clayton is charged with finding Edens and reigning him in to assure the firm's multi-billion client the gigantic class action suit they're facing is still under control, but there's more to Edens that anyone suspects, and as Clayton deploys his damage control, he learns more about the activities of the firm they're defending and realises Edens might only not be so crazy but they might all face deadly consequences.
Like Syriana, Michael Clayton is a dense, hushed movie where nothing is made perfectly clear. Rather than present a definitive picture of the story, it's alluded to through insider speak and almost imperceptible nuance and gesture on the part of the actor, the script and the masterful direction from former scriptwriter Tony Gilroy. Subsequent viewings will reveal more of the deep facets of plotting but it's one of those rare movies where - even as you try to keep up - you know you're watching something very special.
Clooney is just one of a stellar cast perfectly suited to their roles, with Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack sharing his command of the material whenever they're on screen. It's a smart, mature and thrilling film and when you watch the end credits and see the names credited as various producers (Clooney, Pollack, Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella), you understand how it turned out so classy.
If a film can be successful simply by presenting realistic and human characters, not signposting every turn in the story and using the mechanics of camera angles, lighting and mood to convey a multi-layered narrative, then Michael Clayton is the best example of it in a long time.