There's a scene in the opening moments of 'Michael Clayton' in which George Clooney's title character visibly flinches at being called a "miracle worker." As a "fixer" for a prestigious law firm in New York City, it's Clayton's job to clean up the legal messes that other attorneys lack the time, patience, or talent to handle. When hit with such a messianic descriptor, Clayton snaps at his client, instead referring to himself as a "janitor." Less than ten minutes into this Oscar dark horse, the self-loathing revealed in this resentful declaration makes it clear that 'Michael Clayton' is no ordinary legal thriller.
For six years, legendary attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has represented U-North, an agricultural chemical company facing a class action lawsuit. The plaintiffs' accusation is that the massive conglomerate knowingly sold and distributed cancer-causing products to farmers across the nation. As the case nears a favorable settlement for U-North, Edens stops taking his medication and has a mental breakdown (arguably an awakening), threatening the livelihood of his firm, the reputation of his client, and the likelihood that U-North will survive the release of any information he leaks to the public about what the company is hiding. Enter Michael Clayton (George Clooney). Sent to find and control Edens, Clayton must also contend with the chief council from U-North, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), a pair of calculating corporate thugs (Terry Serpico and Robert Prescott), and the lead partner at his firm, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack).
Clayton is not your average fixer -- he's a middle-aged recovering gambler who hates his job, his talents, and the career they've led him to. He is constantly at odds with his brothers (one a police officer, the other a struggling addict), desperately trying to prepare his young son for the real world, and distraught at his inability to become a decent person. To his great credit, Clooney handles every turn and nuance of Clayton's personality with ease. His subtle expressions reveal more than his words, allowing Clayton to emerge as a complex, complicated character, with no allegiances or loyalties.
Thankfully, even when Clooney drifts off screen, the film retains its drive and momentum with a series of fascinating supporting characters. Wilkinson is quickly becoming one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood, with consistently powerful performances that elevate every film he appears in. His Arthur Edens is a jumble of madness and sudden clarity, who ultimately emerges as one of the only pure souls in the film. Despite his mental instability, he seems to be the only person undeterred by U-North's deep pockets. On the opposing side, Tilda Swinton delivers one of the most human villains in recent memory. She doesn't simply make evil decisions, she struggles with her own morality, slowly drifting into a morally questionable world that seems to grow more comfortable with each decision. I actually found myself feeling for this career-driven woman gone bad.
Performances aside, it's the incredibly tight screenplay from first-time director Tony Gilroy (previously credited with writing the 'Bourne' films, 'The Devil's Advocate,' and 'Extreme Measures') that steals the show. Every line of dialogue in this twisting plot is smart, realistic, and essential to the development of the characters. There isn't a single scene that the film could do without. To top it all off, the film has one of the most satisfying endings of any of this years Best Picture nominees. It's brutal and succinct, and I couldn't imagine it ending any other way. Even the scene laid over the end credits is ingenious and I sat watching the entire shot until the screen went black.
'Michael Clayton' is a powerful experience that easily nabbed a spot in my top five films of 2007. I'm hard pressed to think of a single criticism, and found the story and characters even more involving the second time I watched the film. If you haven't seen 'Michael Clayton,' don't waste any more time, track this one down now.
Like the identically encoded Blu-ray, the HD DVD edition of 'Michael Clayton' features a restrained 1080p/VC-1 transfer that does a great job rendering the dark, murky world of U-North and their lawyers. The palette has been bleached of vibrancy, but the film's blues and silvers never undermine the stability of the remaining primaries. Blacks are inky, contrast is comfortably stark, and detail is occasionally impeccable. This HD DVD edition trounces its standard DVD counterpart, but it doesn't quite stand head and shoulders above the rest of the high-def crowd.
Intentional crushing is a frequent hindrance, and shadow delineation is all over the place. At times, objects are clearly defined in the darkness, while in other scenes the most obvious elements of a shot can be completely engulfed in black. Compression artifacts aren't ever a problem, but digital noise and a bit of minor edge enhancement pop up at random moments to pick away at the presentation. More troublesome is the limited presence of fine texture -- likely a result of the original stock used to shoot the film. There are a handful of shots where pores and hair are crisply rendered on the screen, but most scenes feature disappointingly defined skin and flat clothing. The overall image has a stunning level of depth, but ultimately fails to create much dimension.
All in all, the majority of the visual inconsistencies in 'Michael Clayton' should not be blamed on technical deficiencies in the transfer. Most likely they're the result of a visual tone that doesn't allow the image to reach significant visual highs. At the end of the day, fans of the film should be pleased with this HD DVD presentation -- it not only bests the standard DVD, but replicates the theatrical experience.
Warner Brothers has faced criticism lately for abstaining from lossless or uncompressed audio on several hotly anticipated titles. To be honest, I'm shocked to see a lesser title like 'In the Valley of Elah' receive a TrueHD track, while 'Michael Clayton,' a film nominated for seven Oscars, is left with a standard Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix (640 kbps). Comparing the two conversation driven audio experiences, the benefits a lossless mix brings to even a quiet film become quite evident. The low-end tones in 'Michael Clayton' sound more bulbous, with high-end pitches slightly less stable. The soundscape just isn't as crisp as it could be.
Even so, the front-heavy track is commendable for what it accomplishes. Dialogue is clean and well prioritized, convincing (but light) ambiance populates the rear channels, and dynamics are strong and bold. When Arthur blares a U-North commercial in his loft, the soundfield releases deep LFE booms that punctuate the shrill hiss of his television. Scenes in the streets of New York hum with traffic and passing noise, while distant phones and fax machines bleed through the walls of Clayton's offices. Shocking developments in the story (like an exploding car in the first act of the film) are as audibly jarring as they are thematically and visually effective.
In the end, the Dolby Digital Plus mix doesn't boast the aggressive tenacity or crystal clear soundscape of a TrueHD track, but it comes pretty close. Fans should be adequately pleased with the results.
(Note that after several comparisons, I'm confident that the Dolby Digital Plus track on this HD DVD is identical to the Dolby Digital mix included on the Blu-ray edition.)
Warner Brothers has ported over all of the standard DVD extras to the HD DVD edition of 'Michael Clayton.' Sadly, it only amounts to a smattering of forgettable supplements that don't do the film justice.
'Michael Clayton' took me by surprise. I expected either an intimate character study or a twisted corporate thriller -- but somehow the filmmakers delivered both in one deftly scripted film. Alas, this HD DVD edition isn't a clear cut winner. It features a faithful video transfer (that won't turn many heads) and an impressive audio mix (that really should have been presented with a lossless or uncompressed track). A slim set of lackluster supplements doesn't help matters. On the technical level, this release is strong enough to warrant a look. On a movie level, this, my second favorite film of 2007, is whole-heartedly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.