Scandal Janitor

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Given the present occupants of the White House, it’s no surprise that conspiracy and whistle-blower pictures are making such a brisk comeback; Nixon’s nutty pathologies—which fueled the last wave of conspiracy films—seem in comparison almost endearing. Michael Clayton, the latest and greatest from the George Clooney Chomskyite Pinko Factory that gave us Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, doesn’t touch directly on this administration, but the story unfolds in a universe in which government oversight is nil and conglomerates and their gold-plated law firms have almost limitless resources, legal and extralegal. As in so many current films (and news stories), the last line of defense is the conscience of a tormented individual.

That individual is not Clooney’s Michael Clayton, an attorney who’s kept in the shadows of a huge law firm, where he works as a fixer, a scandal-janitor for lucrative clients. (One wonders, watching him zoom up to Westchester to mop up after a bigwig’s hit-and-run accident, whether a fixer was as swiftly on the scene of Clooney’s own recent motorcycle wreck.) It’s one of the firm’s partners, the hitherto ruthless litigator Arthur (a prodigiously twitchy Tom Wilkinson), who finally cracks under the strain of doing bad things on behalf of bad people—in this case, defending an Arthur Daniels Midland–like corporation against a multibillion-dollar class-action suit charging it with knowingly marketing a carcinogenic weed-killer.

One thing that helps keep this conversion melodrama from becoming sanctimonious (and wearying) is that Arthur’s righteous speeches are two-thirds gibberish and his ranting is accompanied, on one occasion, by stripping down to his underwear and trying to push his clothes on a young litigant. Very odd. It’s Clayton’s unhappy job to keep his old friend from winning the case for the other side, but Arthur is a slippery loon. He can duck out fire escapes and, when cornered, reel off the statutes that will keep him from being involuntarily committed. It falls to the conglomerate’s new chief legal counsel (Tilda Swinton) to go beyond gentle persuasion.

The writer and director, Tony Gilroy, makes Swinton a fascinating face of evil. In her first major scene, he cuts between her anxious rehearsal before the mirror of her first presentation to company executives and the smooth presentation itself—back and forth, back and forth, so that you’re sensitized to the tremulousness under the mask of crisp efficiency. You know she’s human and not a ruthless automaton, which is why her subsequent decisions are so shocking. She’ll do anything to measure up to her boss and mentor (Ken Howard)—which drives home the point that it’s the people who are least secure in their power who tend to abuse it so impulsively.

Gilroy wrote all three Bourne films (as well as a guilty pleasure of mine, the screwed-up ice-skating romance The Cutting Edge), but Michael Clayton is a vastly different kind of conspiracy thriller. It’s not one of those jittery motion-sickness pictures that accelerate around every narrative curve. It holds to a measured beat, to the point where you feel a growing impatience—a good impatience, like when you’re reading some potboiler and can’t breathe too easily and can’t turn the pages fast enough. Maybe that’s why the climax, a dialogue in which no voice is raised, is so smashingly cathartic and why the line “I am Shiva, god of death” will enter the lexicon. The dénouement, the last shot of the film, is hauntingly strange and sad; I didn’t want the image to fade to black.

Clooney is as good as he has ever been. He uses his glamour as a mask, internalizing everything; only a faint touch of glibness clues you in to Clayton’s disgust with what he does and the people with whom he does it. He broods, but he keeps moving. When his boss—Sydney Pollack in one of his peerless, low-key executive performances—tells Clayton, “We always knew this case reeked,” you see it dawn on him, as if for the first time, that being a cog in an infernal machine is not a design for living.

Tony Kaye’s grueling two-and-a-half-hour documentary Lake of Fire opens with anti-abortion activist and former Ku Klux Klan member John Burt explaining that the lake in question is the place where people who’ve had abortions (and abortionists and, for that matter, those of us who haven’t been saved) will writhe and burn for eternity. He is, of course, unhinged, and fueled by hatred rather than love of innocent souls. But hate is a great motivator, and Burt has been a big influence on people like Michael Griffin and Paul Hill, who added two doctors to that lake’s population.

Kaye has said he wants Lake of Fire to be the film on the issue of abortion—the one that both camps will watch and say, “Okay, that’s fair,” even if they still leave wanting to strangle the people on the other side. Most of the interviews were done in the nineties, before the director, a voluble Englishman, made the skinhead drama American History X (and dynamited his Hollywood career by loudly denouncing the studio and the star, Edward Norton, for recutting the film). But the dialogue hasn’t progressed much; the principal difference is that today, the Supreme Court is a lot closer to overturning Roe v. Wade. That makes this sprawling, scary, nearly unbearable film more important than ever.

Shot in stark black-and-white, Lake of Fire features talking heads from all over the spectrum, from Noam Chomsky to Randall Terry, from the former Jane Roe (Norma McCorvey), now an anti-abortion activist, to Dr. David Gunn, seen in footage from nine months before he was murdered. But at least half the film is in the present tense: demonstrations and counterdemonstrations in which the participants’ fury burns through the screen. And in the final and most notorious sequence, Kaye shows an abortion from beginning (the woman leaving for the clinic) to end (her thoughts when it’s over, in the waiting room), with everything in between. From my perspective, filming the horrific procedure tips the movie to the anti-abortion side—even though the clinic staff is exquisitely sensitive and the woman, a 28-year-old who looks 48 and had her jaw broken by the child’s father, who subsequently died in a motorcycle accident, is in no position financially or emotionally to raise a child. The sad truth is that the anti-abortionists here, even some of the fundamentalist nutbirds who’d like to see people executed for taking the Lord’s name in vain, have far more weight than the people on the pro-choice side, who seem flip in their dismissals and also have nothing comparable to giant blowups of dead fetuses. (They have murdered doctors and dead women with protruding coat hangers, but fetuses trump everything.) It’s almost better for the pro-choice case to let the anti-abortionists go on and on about Satan worshippers barbecuing babies and forcing sixth-graders to choose homosexuality. (I’m not caricaturing their position—at one point Terry shouts, “Jeffrey Dahmer believed in freedom of choice!”)

I’m glad Nat Hentoff is in the movie. I remember the civil-liberties beacon from my days at the Village Voice, where he was shunned by most of the women on staff for his views on abortion. He’s a lefty atheist who also happens to believe that life begins when the sperm meets the egg—a view I find convincing. But the answer, as the movie’s pro-choice activists maintain, isn’t banning abortion but making birth control easier to obtain—exactly what the Bible-thumpers proclaim will lead Americans further down the road to perdition, and which is why they’d like to end the divide between church and state, rewrite the Constitution, and turn the United States into a theocracy. Lake of Fire centers on abortion, but Kaye understands that while dead fetuses are the hook, the agenda covers the whole life cycle.

Jake Paltrow (father Bruce, mother Blythe Danner, sister Gwyneth) is another showbiz-royalty kid who thinks he’s a screenwriter and director, and, while I resent him for his overprivileged existence, I think he might be, too. His comedy The Good Night takes familiar (embarrassingly familiar) male-angst material and makes it go loop-de-loop, so that the jokes hit you from behind and underneath while the bleakness smacks you in the face. Painful, yes—but that’s part of the masochistic fun.

It helps that the male leads are Brits who can lighten the mood without caricaturing the emotions. Martin Freeman (of the British The Office) is Gary, an ex–rock musician stuck in a frosty live-in relationship with Dora, played by a deglamorized Gwyneth wearing long dark hair like a shroud. The title alludes to his time with his other girlfriend, a hotcha Spanish goddess (Penélope Cruz) who slinks through his lyrical dreams. To know her more intimately, Gary takes up with a manic lucid-dreams guru (Danny DeVito); the poor cluck thinks the answers to life’s questions are in his sleeping brain’s glorified perfume commercials.

Cruz shows up in the flesh, and she’s wonderfully tart and funny: Her character sizes up Gary’s neediness (and jealousy) so fast that she’s gone before you finish gasping. The other great life force is Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) as Gary’s inexhaustibly sleazy mate Paul, his lack of shame the perfect foil for his best friend’s surfeit. My lone reservation about The Good Night is that the central relationship, between Gary and Dora, is utterly and completely loveless—spent. So when Gary begins to gravitate back to her in his dreams, it’s hard to cheer him on. It’s hard to cheer Gwyneth on, too, as brave a stunt as this is. Who wants to see such a delightful actress close herself down? In Emily Nussbaum’s interview with Gwyneth (see page 104), Paltrow says she was physicalizing her “New York Jewish half.” Oh, Gwyneth, I could tell you stories about New York Jewish girls that would send your willowy blonde Wasp half to Bellevue.

The major event of this week will be the screening at the New York Film Festival of Brian De Palma’s incendiary Redacted, based on the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by American soldiers. You can read about it—and much more—on my new blog, The Projectionist.

Like many of us, Hollywood has long had a love-hate relationship with lawyers. Counsellor at Law (1933) set a precedent with the story of an upwardly mobile (and not wholly ethical) lawyer. Good-guy attorneys then popped up in such thrillers as Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) created the standard by which all movie lawyers would be measured. They have since appeared either as shady characters (The Godfather, 1972) or conflicted and overworked yet ultimately good ones (The Verdict, 1982). But so far, the low point for nice lawyers was the nineties, with The Firm (1993) and The Devil’s Advocate (1997).

Michael Clayton
Directed by Tony Gilroy. Warner Bros. R.

Lake of Fire
Directed by Tony Kaye. ThinkFilm. NR.

The Good Night
Directed by Jake Paltrow. Yari Film Group. R.


Scandal Janitor