Film & TV

Michael Clayton: the price of truth, justice and morality

A perfect example of Libra on film can be found in Michael Clayton, a tense legal thriller that explores the nature of truth and justice and so much more. The film is even more relevant now than it was back in 2007 when it came out. The story follows Michael Clayton, a fixer who cleans up messes for a legal firm and their rich clients, as he seeks redemption in an ethical wasteland.

**Expect Spoilers!**

The film begins almost at the end of the story and then loops back to the inciting incident that occurred four days earlier. It’s an interesting structure because it gives you a few puzzle pieces before you have any context for them – details that only make sense later when you see how the story unfolds.

We see the law firm (Kenner Bach and Ledeen) getting ready to settle a class-action lawsuit for U-North, an agrochemical company. Meanwhile, Michael is gambling when he gets a call to deal with a client who has hit somebody with his car. As he drives to the client’s house, his Sat Nav starts playing up.

After dealing with the client, he drives around aimlessly and as the sun comes up, notices something that makes him stop: three horses standing beside a tree on a hill. Transfixed, he gets out of the car and slowly approaches the horses so he doesn’t scare them off. He stands with them for a moment, overcome with a sense of loss.

Behind him, the car explodes, and the horses bolt.

Then we loop back to the start of the story and find out more about Michael’s life. He picks up his son and drives him to school. The restaurant he started with his alcoholic brother gets auctioned off but it’s not enough to cover his debts. He deals with a few problems at work and generally goes through the motions. Then he gets the call that will transform his life.

Michael Clayton and Arthur Edens

Arthur Edens, the firm’s top litigator, has just had a meltdown and Michael has to clean up the mess. Arthur was working on the class-action lawsuit for U-North and during a deposition by Anna (one of the plaintiffs) he stripped and declared his love for her. The firm want Arthur back on the job and under control because they’re about to merge with another firm in London and they don’t want his mess to sink the merger.

Michael realises that Arthur has gone off his meds because it’s happened before. But this time, Arthur claims it’s not madness. He found a memo that implicates U-North and proves they covered up the fatal consequences of their weed killer. He has seen the light and finally knows the truth – as described in his blistering opening monologue:

Arthur wants Michael to join his quest to reveal the truth, but Michael has a job to do – like everyone else. Unfortunately for Arthur, U-North have their own fixers and he ends up dead. Michael begins to question his loyalties and is drawn into the conspiracy, only to become a target himself.

Throughout the film, the reality of Michael’s life is laid bare. He used to prosecute organised crime and presumably made some useful contacts over the years. His firm makes good use of this but he seems to have lost sight of what’s right and wrong. He has lost his moral compass, as shown by the Sat Nav failing in his car.

He’s good at making connections and fixing other people’s problems, but ultimately, it’s just his job. A job that has drained his life of humanity and meaning. He looks the part – drives a flashy car and wears expensive clothes – but the car belongs to the firm and he’s in debt. It’s all surface and no soul. There’s no passion behind what he does. He’s jaded and tired. His life is a shell.

However, it seems he was in the process of trying to change. He used to gamble but gave it up and opened the restaurant as a way out. But then his brother let him down and now the loan shark wants his money back and Michael has become trapped in his own amoral web.

He exists on the edges of other people’s lives. He’s the guy you call when nothing else will work and you want to make a problem disappear. Nobody really wants to know a guy like that – in ‘real life’ Michael Clayton would be seen as a bad guy. He obviously cares about his son, his two brothers, and his colleagues, but he keeps himself apart. He’s an outsider in his own life.

But that changes as a result of dealing with Arthur’s meltdown. Michael admires Arthur and sees him as a friend, so when Arthur cracks under the strain, it affects Michael on a personal level. Arthur’s doubts about the system work their way into the cracks in Michael’s soul and begin to transform him.

Karen Crowder

The antagonist in Michael Clayton is Karen Crowder, general counsel at U-North. She’s responsible for making sure the class-action lawsuit doesn’t damage the company and is willing to cross any and every moral line to do so. As a bad guy, Karen makes an interesting character because she’s so clearly out of her depth. She’s ambitious and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, but she’s also a nervous wreck.

We see her sweating before a meeting with the board, and checking herself in a mirror as she rehearses answers to questions for an interview. She’s a control freak and anxious about how she comes across, and not really suited to this line of work. As with Michael, it’s all appearance and surface, and no real depth.

During the interview, she can’t work out how to answer a question about her work life balance, because for her, it’s all work. She has no idea what balance means. She has no life. She’s driven by desperation to keep her job and impress her boss, no matter what it takes. She orders the killings of Arthur and Michael with no apparent sense of the moral implications – it’s just a way to deal with a problem.

The law firm that Michael and Arthur work for also has an ambiguous relationship to morality. They know U-North is guilty of poisoning people but they don’t care. It’s not their job to care. But now Arthur has woken up and found his conscience and it threatens to destroy the firm.

“Make believe it’s not just madness.”

Michael describes Arthur as a legend. He has a ferocious reputation as a lawyer, and yet he’s also bipolar and on medication. The lawsuit against U-North has been grinding on for years and Arthur has cracked under the strain. He has stopped taking his meds and has lost his balance, spinning off into a manic episode. But he repeatedly claims it’s not madness and that he’s finally seeing the truth.

Arthur has had a kind of spiritual awakening and has seen through his previous amorality. Now he knows the truth and he knows who he is – revealed in this fantastic scene, a continuation from the opening monologue above:

Arthur is crazy but in the world of these lawyers, he may be the most sane. He has seen their world for what it is and now wants to put things right.

The cause of his epiphany is Anna, one of the 468 plaintiffs. Her parents were killed by U-North’s weed killer and Arthur sees her as the embodiment of innocence. He becomes infatuated with her because she reminds him of what he has lost. He begins to see himself through her eyes and her innocence becomes the lens through which he refocuses his life.

Arthur believes he has blood on his hands and wants to return to the innocent state represented by Anna. He wants to be cleansed and purified of his crimes. The name ‘Edens’ connects him to ideas of a return to paradise and innocence, to go back to the beginning and start again. The name Clayton connects Michael to similar ideas – clay being the earth and soil, the stuff mankind was shaped from in Eden.

Arthur could also refer to King Arthur – on a quest to restore the land and the kingdom, and redeem himself of his role in despoiling the planet. This is in sharp contrast to the U-North commercial that Arthur uses to record a message containing details of the incriminating memo. The ad shows a twisted version of Eden, corrupted by their chemicals. The voice-over says:

“We find the seed. We shape the soil. We speed the harvest. We feed the planet.”

Arthur’s quest to return to innocence isn’t just about youth. It’s about being uncorrupted and incorruptible. Innocence means being open to life and allowing it to flow and flourish – the opposite of what U-North does.

True innocent action doesn’t make karma because it comes from a pure place, free of selfishness and greed. It’s about being good and doing good without expecting something in return. U-North wants to feed the planet, not because it’s a good thing to do, but because they can make a shit load of money out of it – especially if they can accelerate the harvest and increase yields.

Michael with his son, Henry

Another character who embodies innocence in the film is Henry, Michael’s son. Henry is obsessed with a fantasy book called Realm and Conquest and wants his father to take an interest in it. As Michael drives him to school, Henry explains why the story is so good:

“Nobody has any alliances. You can’t even say who you are cos you don’t know, maybe the person you’re talking to is your mortal enemy in the wars. So it’s just completely everybody for themselves.”

Michael says, “That sounds familiar.” Indeed. It’s Michael’s connection with his son that shows he’s not totally lost. Henry represents Michael’s hope for the future and helps to keep him balanced. It also saves his life…

Arthur has a wonderful interaction with Henry when they talk about Realm and Conquest. Henry describes how all the characters are having the same dream but they don’t realise it and think they’re going crazy. Arthur is feeling delicate and looking for reassurance so, for him, this conversation is painfully meaningful. He knows the characters aren’t crazy and takes it as a vindication of his breakthrough.

He gets a copy of the book and highlights sections of it and scribbles in the margins. Later he gets hundreds of copies made of the damning U-North memo and has them bound in red covers to match the book, calling it Summons to Conquest after one of the chapters.

Arthur feels as if he has been summoned to a greater task. He doesn’t want to serve the liars and the corrupt corporations anymore. He wants to reclaim his humanity and the truth and find redemption. And he calls on Michael to join him in his quest.

Michael finds the receipt for the photocopies of the memo hidden in the pages of Realm and Conquest when he searches Arthur’s apartment. He also notices an illustration of a horse standing beside a tree. It’s this image that makes him stop the car… but I’m getting ahead of myself…

‘Realm and Conquest’ horse illustration

Michael retrieves a copy of the memo and takes it to his boss. He asks for an advance so he can pay off his debts, but the firm will only give him the money if he signs a retroactive nondisclosure agreement so he can’t talk about the case with Arthur and U-North. In a critical scene, we see him literally weighing his options – the cheque in one hand, the memo in the other. Take the money and walk away, or take up Arthur’s quest and finish the job?

He takes the money.

This is a terrible moment for Michael. He’s sold both his friend and himself out and given in to the darkness. He has potentially lost his soul in this bargain with the proverbial devil. So he goes gambling again for the first time in years – why not?

After dealing with the asshole who hit somebody with his car, Michael drives recklessly. He knows he’s done his last job and he’s disgusted with himself. But then as the sun comes up, he sees the horses and gets out of the car. The peaceful scene reminds him of what he’s lost – innocence and freedom.

There are three horses on the hill but only one in the book. Seeing them is a synchronicity that ultimately saves his life. The horses might represent Michael standing with his two brothers. They could also represent the Christian trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – connecting Michael to the deeper meaning underpinning his life.

When his car explodes, it gives Michael a second chance at redemption. He throws his belongings into the flames, not to fake his death, but to buy himself a couple of hours to do what he needs to do. As his old life burns up in the fire, he symbolically dies and is reborn. Michael emerges at dawn cleansed of his past and ready for a new beginning.

He reconnects with his brothers and is able to turn the tables on U-North and finish what Arthur started. It’s one of the most satisfying endings in cinema and is especially good because you’re not sure exactly what Michael is doing. It looks like he’s going after more money, digging himself even deeper into the pit. But then he says the immortal line and the trap shuts.

Interestingly, if U-North hadn’t tried to kill him, he would have just walked away. He took the money and the contract, but then U-North overreached and that pushed him into doing the right thing. So if they hadn’t been evil, he wouldn’t have had the chance to redeem himself and find freedom.

In the end, Michael tells the truth:

“I’m the guy you buy.”

The truth costs him everything, except the things that really matter: his family and his son. In other words, love.

Explore more films here.

Images: film stills

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