Film: Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton    4 stars
Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack and Pamela Gray. Directed by Tony Gilroy. Released by Warner Bros. Rated R; 2:00.

    Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” is one of my favorite films of the year. Gilroy has already made a mark this year by writing “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but “Michael Clayton” is his directorial debut, and he does not disappoint. He and his star George Clooney make the game look all too easy.

    Clooney plays the title character, a divorced, rapidly burning-out attorney. If Clayton has not yet made partner at his New York law firm, it has not been for lack of trying. He is the guy the bigwigs call when they have work too dirty to touch or when problems must be made to simply go away. Clayton’s current assignment involves reining in a colleague (Tom Wilkinson, in fine form as always) who has stopped taking his meds and is evidently losing his mind in the middle of an important trial. That is not the extent of Clayton’s troubles. He also has opposing counsel — in the form of the seriously frightening Tilda Swinton — on his case. Then there is his boss (Sydney Pollack) applying pressure from above.

    “Michael Clayton” harkens back in the best possible way to the paranoid political and legal thrillers of the 1970s and early ’80s. Here can be found echoes of “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and, most especially, Sidney Lumet’s “The Verdict.”

    Who gets credit for this considerable achievement? Certainly director Gilroy has done a fine job. With his writing and the superlative camera work by Robert Elswit, it is hard to find an obvious flaw. Serious kudos must also go to Clooney, though. Not since the heyday of Jack Nicholson (or even Bogart) has an actor succeeded so brilliantly even while playing essentially the same character again and again. George is on a roll, and nothing seems likely to stop him.