What does it mean to be a man on screen in 2007? Years ago it was about stoicism, swagger, a little of Bogart and a bit of Errol Flynn. These days – post-90s, post-New Man, post-“feelings” – men on screen are windswept by the world, unfastened. Does anyone honestly look at Zach Braff and say “that’s the kind of man I’d like to be?” Of course not. Being a man on screen in 2007 is about being confused or being boyish for the most part. That is, unless you’re George Clooney. His new movie Michael Clayton might not be the best damn thing in legal thrillers, but it’s close. Better yet, it puts a man on screen who doesn’t shed a tear nor throw a single punch.
Michael Clayton is about a legal case the way Erin Brockovich was about a legal case. It’s a star vehicle. You could have had all the sick kids and corporate malfeasance you liked in Erin Brockovich, but if it hadn’t been for Julia Roberts you wouldn’t have had a movie. Michael Clayton goes the same way, only this time with sick farmers and George’s stubble in place of Roberts’ cleavage. Clooney plays a fixer for a moneyed New York law firm, the sort of guy who makes the phone calls when a wealthy client runs over a non-client. The action of the movie kicks off when a bipolar lawyer for the firm (Tom Wilkinson) skips his meds and strips naked mid-deposition. Clooney is dispatched to calm the situation and reassure the client (his usual brief), but his star-of-the-movie antennae start to twitch when the lawyer tells him dark deeds are afoot with their client, a big scary multinational conglomerate who make Erin Brockovich’s P.G.E. look like potato people.
Clooney is on fire in this movie. He’s been on fire since Out of Sight. Michael Clayton doesn’t add anything to his acting repertoire (he basically plays Danny Ocean with a job), but then – what needs to be added? Did Cary Grant add anything after he discovered the eyebrow and the tuxedo? George’s forte is guys in their 40s who look like guys in their 40s and act like they wouldn’t have it any other way. He plays men (still fantasy men – don’t kid yourselves guys) who know their way around a casino; men who like to drink without getting sloppy; men who get around but aren’t crass about it. Michael Clayton is a George Clooney role because a) he’s divorced (Clooney should never play married), b) he gambles, c) he’s corrupt – but he can still ride his high horse, and d) even the villain (Tilda Swindon) looks like she wants to sleep with him.
Everyone else in the movie is secondary, but it’s credit to the non-star performers that the audience doesn’t mind when Clooney’s not on screen. Tom Wilkinson has a field day as the bipolar lawyer, relishing the chance to babble and strip to the waist. He’s canny casting for this role because of the decency which wreaths him, and the equally high-minded hard-to-read quality he brought to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Tilda Swinton, as ever, finds a new way into a part that shouldn’t present such opportunities. Her genius here is to play the villain as nervous, to have her constantly question her actions. What could have been pantomime instead becomes squirmingly real.
To be a man on screen in 2007, to play the lead in Michael Clayton, a man needs old-fashioned qualities. I wouldn’t advocate a return to every attitude of the Hays Code-era; men shouldn’t need to look down on women, or to stifle themselves to be men. But men should be able, as George Clooney is able, to dispense wisdom without sentiment, to be right without need for violence, and to be composed in the face of life’s pitfalls. Michael Clayton isn’t about a man who’s got all the answers; it’s about a man who finds answers for a living (however hollow, however false). He’s a good man because he sees beyond a profit (eventually). He’s a role-model because he’s an adult.