Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Kia Franklin, Drum Major Institute for Public Policy
We continue our weekly look at the Best Picture nominees with the case for Michael Clayton, as presented by Kia Franklin, Civil Justice Fellow with DMI and contributor to their TortDeform blog.
"Make believe it's not madness."
That's what's scribbled on the wall of the hotel out of which Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a lead partner in a mega class action lawsuit, escapes. The day prior, he had been arrested for losing it at a videotaped deposition, performing a painful strip tease/rant for opposing counsel, and then running naked into a parking lot. It quickly becomes clear that the partner, Arthur, has begun making the case against their client, U North, a chemical company accused of knowingly releasing cancer-causing products into the market.
Michael Clayton has come to clean things up.
Michael Clayton is a fixer for Kenner Bach and Ledeen, a reputable international law firm in New York City. He's the guy who bills his time under "Special Projects," if he bills it at all. The guy who everyone knows is valuable, but no one knows why. What kinds of special projects does Clayton take on? Quelling a big client's budding scandal before it goes public, using his connections and creativity to help straighten out the crooked, and making sure as few people are involved in the process as possible. As valuable as he is for what he does, at one point he makes it clear that he's "not a miracle worker, [he's] a janitor."
In a conversation in the jailhouse where Arthur is being held, Arthur faces the fact that he's been spending a significant portion of his working life defending a company that has knowingly harmed hundreds of families and killed at least 468 people.
|"They kill them, Michael," he says.
"You're a legend," Michael returns.
"I'm an accomplice!" he corrects Clayton. "I'm Shiva the God of Death!"
The film explores the flip side of the image of the greedy trial lawyer swindling extra bucks from plaintiff-clients. It looks at the ethical and professional boundaries for defense-side trial lawyers whose clients are not people but corporations. What happens when they have evidence that their client knowingly harmed others? Is there a point at which it is only sensible that this information would drive a top litigator at a top international firm to go loony and strip down to his skivvies on camera?
The film has the suspense, the outstanding dialogue, the cinematography, the stuff that makes a classic. And it makes you think. It makes you think about the role of corporations in our daily lives as well as in the operation of a legal system that we are told is a legitimate place to bring injuries and injustices in search of redress.
As an individual who believes in the civil justice system, who believes that our civil courts are a forum for the little guy to take on Goliath corporations that are harming the public, I appreciate that this film challenges us to think about the limits of this system. The film exposes what we already know but rarely reflect upon about the humanity, and therefore, fallacy, of the people working within the legal system. And it gives us a clear take-home: if the American justice system is to fulfill its purported function of enforcing corporate responsibility and protecting human dignity, then the people operating in the system-lawyers, CEOS, and "fixers"-must grapple with some serious ethical questions. And the people accessing the system-plaintiffs harmed by another person or a corporation's negligence or wrongdoing-must be persistent with their claims if justice is to be served.
This point about grappling with the tough questions is driven home in a telling moment early in the film, when Arthur is on the phone with Michael Clayton's son, discussing a fantasy book. As the adult/child roles switch in this scene, Arthur's desperate need for something to believe in and hope for becomes painfully clear. Asking the child about a fictional fantasy world in which all of the characters have the same dream, but no one talks about it, Arthur asks: "Do they know they're all having the same dream?"
No, is the answer. But, reassured that the characters in the book are "not crazy," that "something larger than themselves is happening, but they aren't ready to admit it," Arthur scribbles down the book's information and thanks the boy, as though he's now got the key to his sanity.
Dream turns to nightmare as the film depicts an unscrupulous chief counsel for the corporation who makes clean, calculated decisions about Arthur's, and U North's fate. In Karen Crowder's (Tilda Swinton) analysis, there is no cost too great for U North's benefit. She calmly breaks into Arthur's trial briefcase where she discovers that U North is in fact, in the wrong, and that its CEO has signed off on documents confirming this. She quickly calls professional "fixers" on U North's side to clean up the mess.
The film also touches on some themes that resonate with current political/legal affairs-it shows us some illegal wiretapping, gives us an eye into the business behind class action settlements, and depicts corporate cronyism at its worst. But in the end, the film's main emphasis seems to be on the human condition. And it reveals that our legal system is just a tool either for making access to justice a reality for other innocent human beings, or for preserving power and privilege for those who hold and abuse it. By following Michael Clayton's journey through the U North scandal and his own personal financial crisis, it chronicles one human being's struggle with loss, temptation, love, responsibility, and with the institutions in our lives that both order and complicate those things for us. I think it also asks us to reflect upon what we think the proper role should be for corporate power in our lives, and to reflect upon how our individual decisions can affect that reality.
In the end, we see Clayton sitting in a cab, driving no where but away from everything. He has performed a feat by taking on a giant corporation. He has probably helped bring justice to hundreds of families. And he has redeemed the memory of his friend. But, interestingly, he could only achieve this by circumventing the law, going against the grain professionally, and facing his near demise as a result. He does it, though. After all, he's a fixer.