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Photograph by Myles Aronowitz
BRING THE POISE: George Clooney reminds audiences of Bogart and Burr in 'Michael Clayton.'

A Real Man

Is 'Michael Clayton' Clooney's personal best?

By Richard von Busack

WATCHING George Clooney in Michael Clayton is rapture. On one level, you know that it's all guff, what the movies tell you about how a real man acts ... and yet, one ends up, as a moviegoer in 2007, in exile, longing for the sight of a real man. Clooney gives you that sight–the coolness and panic, the poise and nimbleness in speech and walk, the traces of dissipation and bastardry so that there's the possibility the hero will take the easy dollar. That's part of the real-manhood: the potential choice of corruption. Clooney has it in him to be a real heavy sometime, a Raymond Burr.

His Clayton is a black-suited, white-shirted cleaner-upper for a none-too-conscientious law firm. The opening of Tony Gilroy's film finds that firm in panic: a swarm of lawyers pulling an all-nighter, assembling a settlement on a $3 billion lawsuit. Their client, a Monsantolike company out of Omaha, has been hit by a class-action suit accusing them of turning a blind eye to carcinogens in the run-off. There have been many funerals.

This matter is apparently not Clayton's problem, right at the time his car is blown up by a bomb on a rural road. Flashback to four days earlier, when the fixer is in midcrisis: a loan shark circling for the blood of his brother. The biggest event is the spectacular breakdown of the firm's shrewdest lawyer, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), a manic-depressive who no longer wants to conceal the truth. Clayton tries to protect Arthur while holding off his boss (Sydney Pollack). Meanwhile, Clayton's counterpart Karen (Tilda Swinton), the in-house lawyer at the pesticide company, is doing her own cleaning up.

There's a serious tinge of horror here in the graveyard-shift hours and in Wilkinson's haunted sputtering about the murders he has abetted. When the ante is raised, an assassination is pulled off with shocking speed and efficiency. We are used to Swinton in ice-queen-of-the-aliens roles, but she broadens that type here. Despite her angular face, Swinton is not a skinny woman. In a vulnerable moment, half-dressed in slip and pantyhose, we see the soft rich flesh on her back. Later, after she has gotten in deeper than she would like, we see her shuddering in a toilet stall, with yellow moons of sweat under her arms. Pulled together, she gives a precise, toneless defense of the poisonous company's strategy, that's like something from a Caryl Churchill monologue. It's like a corporate demon has her: something forcing Karen's body to do its bidding.

Michael Clayton offers another foray back into TV's golden age for Clooney, with both the old-school motivation (a brother who needs to be rescued) and the Paddy Chayefsky preaching. Clearly, Wilkinson's Arthur is sired by Howard Beale's mad prophet of the airwaves on Network. The film is simplistic, and yet Clooney keeps it at a boiling point. You have seen how good he is as Cary Grant, and now he shows you he really can do Bogart, too, in a final variation on The Maltese Falcon. The seeming reality of this real man is fixed in the last shot, a long, avant-garde close-up: this perfect image of a man, not thinking or doing, just being.

Movie Times MICHAEL CLAYTON (R; 119 min.), directed and written by Tony Gilroy, photographed by Robert Elswit and starring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton, opens Oct. 12 valleywide.

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