Adjusting the truth

MichaelClayton

In George Clooney’s excellent new film, Michael Clayton, I don’t recall seeing the main characters dining. They plot, scheme, react, go nuts, negotiate, manipulate, argue, fret, and work around the clock. They even sit down at a restaurant table. But we don’t see them consuming food.  With one exception, food only appears with the minor characters. It’s one of the subtle ironies in this story turning on a lawsuit against a giant agribusiness corporation – a behemoth player in production of the nation’s food supply.

These people live in an alternate universe:  the corporate stratosphere populated by CEOs and their legal eagles. The lawyers are in-house corporate counsel and the “outside” top-flight law firms. They probably live on coffee and catered meals in the office, room service on the road, nice dinners out – and none of that is given a minute’s attention in this film.  They have bigger things to think about.

Mostly, they are about adjusting the truth. The film’s tagline – “the truth can be adjusted” – refers in part to the work of Michael Clayton, a lawyer who’s “of counsel” to the Wall Street powerhouse law firm in the film. He’s a lawyer, yes – a former prosecutor in fact, a NYC native who’s got a NYPD detective brother as well as an addict/alcoholic brother and debts from a failed restaurant venture he partnered with the latter. But Michael “Mickey” Clayton’s real gifts are those of the fixer – the man who can summon the best criminal defense lawyer in Westchester County, work the clerk’s office at the courthouse to put a case in the right spot on a docket, get an immigration problem ironed out – and keep the lid on when a senior partner has a psychiatric meltdown on the job.

Portrayed by the wonderful Tom Wilkinson, brilliant and bipolar lead law firm litigator Arthur Edens has quit taking his medication and creates a crisis during a deposition in Milwaukee – in a multibillion-dollar class action lawsuit. The firm is defending agribusiness giant UNorth against claims that a product poisoned people, and Edens’ meltdown is as much a crisis of his conscience as of his biochemistry. He’s got a copy of a “smoking gun” memo proving that UNorth’s top management knew in advance that the stuff could be lethal – and sold it anyway. And, Arthur has fallen in love with a 19 year old plaintiff, a farm girl orphaned by UNorth’s product.

After Edens strips naked in a video deposition and runs out into a Milwaukee snowstorm in his socks, Michael C. flies in for damage control. But his method of damage control isn’t nearly as ruthless as UNorth’s. Corporate counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) could be Lady Macbeth reincarnated.

Back in NYC, Arthur holes up in his loft as the law firm’s world threatens to implode, refusing to answer his phone. But he does go out to shop for food. Michael encounters Arthur on the street, carrying a big bag of fresh baguettes. Arthur offers one to Michael, saying it’s the best bread he’s ever had.

What chance does a mere bread-sniffing mortal have against the corporate legions ranged against him, who fear his knowledge of their secrets?

You’ve got to see this movie to find out. I liked it so much I may see it again. And if it turns out I missed some eating scenes, I’ll let you know.

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