3 Stars — Thought-Provoking

One of the struggles of professional life is keeping our sanity in the face of incredible pressures. This is true not only of our mental and emotional sanity, but in keeping morally sane as well. Although this is true of all the professions, it seems to be especially true of the legal profession. As hired lawyers who are at times called to represent people they may not like, let alone respect, there can become an increasing sense that one has sold his soul for financial gain. This is true of Michael Clayton (George Clooney) and his longtime associate, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who are both lawyers for an prestigious international law firm. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy  (The Bourne Identity), Michael Clayton  walks through a week in which both Michael and Arthur are forced to confront who they really are.

Arthur has spent years of his life representing a stereotypical “evil corporation” whose agrochemical business knew its product was lethal and is being sued in a $3 billion class-action suit. Struggling with his own mental stability that has for years required him to take medication for his bipolar disorder, everyone thinks Arthur is only having another episode when he strips naked in a deposition. What no one realizes is that, though he is obviously mentally unstable, his actions are caused this time by his moral angst.

Brought in to fix the problem is the firm’s “janitor,” Michael Clayton. After a distinguished career as a district attorney, Michael has changed sides and now spends his life helping clean up the messes that his firm’s wealthy clients create. Rather than prosecuting criminals or defending the innocent, Michael is now a legal expert in avoiding criminal prosecution. This change in direction has not only kept him from becoming a partner in his firm but has also devastated his self-respect.

Also struggling with moral sanity is the chief counsel for the agrochemical company, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Tense and insecure, Karen finds herself in over her head when her mentor is promoted to the board of her company, leaving her in charge. Trying to handle an increasingly unraveling problem, she does not have a mental breakdown, but nevertheless finds herself morally stripped bare.

We won’t reveal the intriguing journey that Arthur, Michael and Karen travel, but it is a powerfully real one that reflects reality with depth and insight. The supporting characters of Michael’s son, Henry (Austin Williams); his supervisor, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack); as well as his brothers, Gene (Sean Cullen) and Tim (David Lansbury), provide a depth to the tale that allows us to understand the way Michael navigates the insanity of his life. There is also an intricate weaving of their lives verbally and symbolically that provides texture to the film, as the observant viewer will appreciate.

If you are or were to become a lawyer, do you or would you represent a company you knew was doing illegal things? What if it was doing legal but immoral things?  Why or why not?

The willingness of the security team to carry out Karen’s directives is another example of professionals stepping over the moral line. Do you believe this happens often, though perhaps not at the murderous level?

Do you believe Michael was a good father to Henry? Why do you answer as you do?

How do you think Michael Clayton changed during these five days? What do you think was going through his mind as he rode in the cab?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church  on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.