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Movie Week at Mere-O: Michael Clayton

February 18th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In honor of the Oscars next Sunday, I thought I would devote this week to the five films nominated for Best Picture. As Michael Clayton is the only movie I reviewed previously, I thought I would start with it.
Apparently, I was one of the only people who missed its greatness. Rotten Tomatoes—the best place to get a snapshot of movie reviews—lists a 90% positive rating for the film.

I won’t repeat my previous review. In a nutshell, I was unimpressed and a little confused at the overwhelmingly positive reaction the movie has elicited. Michael Clayton is a well-made, enjoyable film, and Tom Wilkinson could end up winning best supporting actor. But it is hardly a stellar film worthy of Best Picture.

From an ideological standpoint, Michael Clayton is a morality tale that indicts the suppression of truth for the sake of money.

Clayton is brought in to repair a case that his firm has been working on for several years. A biotech firm (similar to Monsanto) is the subject of a class action lawsuit that alleges their product is responsible for the deaths of several farmers. Clayton gets involved when Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) loses his mind. As we find out later (spoiler), Arthur has found a memo from the biotech firm that reveals it knew about the deadly side-effects of its product beforehand, and went ahead with production and distribution regardless.

Clayton is confronted with the decision to continue defending the biotech company. Yet the decision seemed less overwhelming and important than it should. My hunch is that the intricacies of the legal drama overwhelmed Clayton’s personal struggle, which made his decision to let go of his practice a secondary consideration. What I really wanted to know was who did what, and why, rather than how Clayton’s internal struggle with his future would resolve. While the film’s title suggests it is about him, my sense is that it failed in its attempt—it is primarily about the case, and secondarily about Clayton. As a result, the resolution is less emotionally stirring than it should be.

As I said, Michael Clayton is a good film. But it is not a film that will challenge, inspire, or educate. It is an enjoyable legal thriller that is well-written, well-acted, and well-directed. But in comparison to the other nominees for Best Picture, it seems trite and non-extraordinary.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.