Scraping the bottom of the streaming service barrel? Already rewatched all the favorites three times and out of ideas where to look next? We’ve got you covered. Every week (hopefully), Streaming Secrets will showcase an underseen or underrated movie that is available for free, or at least for no extra charge on one of the many streaming services that you probably already pay for.
It has become a cliche in film circles to talk about the movies we don’t get to see anymore. No more adult dramas. No mid-budget genre exercises. No conspiracy thrillers, no more rom coms, no more studio-produced actor showcases greenlighted purely due to that single name in bold on the poster. And then usually we follow it up with the blame: it’s all because of those mega franchises.
It’s tired, I know. So forgive me for going back to the well here and saying they just don’t make ’em like this anymore. This week’s movie is a member not of a dying breed, but of a seemingly extinct artifact from the past. It’s a legal thriller without any attached IP (not based off a novel or comic book) from a first time director, headlined by a major movie star, produced by Castle Rock, and distributed by Warner Bros. And it, in many ways, is weird. It takes chances — such as opening with a seemingly deranged monologue by a lesser-known character actor soundtracking a montage of documents rolling through a mostly empty office building — that could sink many movies, but with the help of a talented cast performing at the top of their games, every one pays off.
I guess, at this point, you’re wondering…
What Are We Watching?
This week’s film is Michael Clayton, the directorial debut of celebrated screenwriter Tony Gilroy. Gilroy, the screenwriter behind the Bourne films, The Devil’s Advocate, and later Rogue One, also wrote the script for this one.
Michael Clayton follows a corporate attorney (guess his name!) who functions as a law firm’s fixer. We watch as he works to control the damage caused by an apparent mental break on the part of one of his firm’s partners who is working on a case involving a large corporation, potentially harmful chemicals, and damning secrets.
Clayton lives that kind of tragic existence that seems all too common in America, and especially New York — and this is very much a New York movie. Long hours, high stress, a seemingly high powered job, a nice car, a perfectly fitted suit. But the image is a mirage. From the inside we see the seams. No savings, no time for family, no life.
What all this adds up to is something we get all too rarely in entertainment — the perfect leading man as the loser. And not the showy type. Not an out of control drunk or drug addict. Not a brilliant artist who can’t get out of his own way or a lovestruck loner pining after the wrong woman. Not even hilariously idiotic in the way that we get to see Clooney and fellow mega-star Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading. Just a guy who, whether at work or with family or at a poker table, is never holding all the cards. A disillusioned, overworked mid-level employee who wants to quit his job but can’t stay ahead of the cycle of debt long enough to find a way out.
The problem Michael has to fix this time involves Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), the partner at his firm, and Karen (Tilda Swinton) who is general counsel for U-North, the corporation who Michael’s firm is representing. Both actors give career-best performances and both were recognized for it, receiving Oscar nominations along with Clooney.
Arthur is a troubled genius, and Wilkinson fits the part perfectly. He chews scenery and owns the movie for every second he’s in it, alternately seeming confused or out of sorts and delivering eviscerating monologues destroying legal arguments, corporate America, and other characters.
Swinton’s Karen is ambitious and neurotic. We see her rehearsing her lines like an automaton and presenting a carefully constructed face to the public. But we also see her — and in fact are introduced to her — frantically falling apart. Reeling from the impact of nerves and pressure and maybe a crisis of conscience as well. Her performance is anxiety-inducing in the best possible ways.
Clooney gives a measured performance that perfectly conveys Michael’s trapped frustration. But the real art of his performance is how it allows his costars to shine. Clooney is the gravitational center around which Wilkinson and Swinton’s supernovas orbit.
Everyone in the movie seems to have an opinion about Michael. From Arthur to Karen to his boss and even his own brother. What he is, what he does, what he’s worth. Michael seems to spend most of the movie pondering the question himself. By the time we get to the ending, he seems to have it figured out.
Is This Like Anything I’ve Seen Before?
With the booming popularity of John Grisham novels, the legal thriller became a popular and profitable genre in Hollywood during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. While the subject matter and concept could find themselves in something like The Pelican Brief or another Grisham film, the pacing and feel of this movie probably owe more to 70’s paranoia thrillers such as The Parallax View.
It’s interesting that the late, great Sydney Pollack — an accomplished actor, but someone who found his greatest success as a director — plays Marty Bach here, because you can see bits of films Pollack directed here, particularly The Firm or Three Days of the Condor. Pollack was an executive producer on the movie, along with Clooney and frequent Clooney collaborator Stephen Soderbergh.
A more direct comparison with regard to subject matter would be last year’s Dark Waters, the Mark Ruffalo-starring true story of the DuPont chemical lawsuit that was settled in 2017.
Where Can We Watch it?
Michael Clayton is available to stream on HBO Max or however you get your HBO content. If you don’t have access to HBO, you can buy or rent it from $2.99 up on various platforms such as Google Play, The iTunes store, etc.
How Does this Qualify as Underseen?
Ok, this one is admittedly the biggest reach we’ve had thus far. I mean, Michael Clayton nabbed $93 million at the box office. That’s a pretty big haul. It was nominated for seven (seven!) academy awards. And not the small ones, like costume or set design. Nope. Here are the nominations it received:
- Best Picture
- Best Actor (George Clooney)
- Best Supporting Actor (Tom Wilkinson)
- Best Supporting Actress (Tilda Swinton – winner)
- Best Director (Tony Gilroy)
- Best Original Screenplay (Gilroy)
- Best Score (James Newton Howard)
Yeah, it only won one of those, but 2007 was also probably (definitely?) the best film year of the century. I mean, this is the year There Will Be Blood lost Best Picture but nobody can really complain about it because the movie it lost to was No Country for Old Men. It was a movie year so good that even the Oscar voters couldn’t make bad choices. So don’t weep too much for the movie, it got its laurels in its time.
And yet, it feels like Michael Clayton has faded completely from mainstream dialogue. It’s overshadowed in Clooney’s catalogue by his work with Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers. Gilroy is probably better known for his work on the Bourne movies. Hell, Michael Clayton grossed just slightly less than Mark Wahlberg’s Shooter in 2007 for about one third of the cost. Which one do you feel has had a greater cultural impact?
So sure, if you feel like I’m cheating a bit, I totally understand that. But I’m willing to bet that 70% of the people reading this haven’t seen this movie. And that’s the problem we’re here to fix.
Any Other Reasons to Watch?
The script is a work of art. As I mentioned before, Gilroy is a veteran screenwriter, and a well-regarded one at that. I don’t think I’m reaching at all when I say this is easily his best work. The script is taut and tense throughout, never wasting a minute. Every moment is important and every character serves to give us a better picture of either Michael, Arthur, or Karen, as well as to move the plot forward.
Gilroy uses some screenwriting cliches, but makes them feel fresh. For instance, writers love to bring back bits of dialogue throughout a movie as a clever moment of symmetry. While entertaining, it can often feel self-indulgent and pull us out of a story when done poorly. But Gilroy does it throughout Michael Clayton, and this time the self-referentiality feels natural and earned, and it works in perfect synchronization with the self-contained loop of the story.
Almost everything in Gilroy’s created world is understated. If not more innocent, at least mundane. The loan shark looks more like a priest than a gangster. The villains are perfectly willing to write off the death of hundreds as long as they maintain a level of distance, but when forced to take an active role, they struggle to confront the weight of their actions.
The themes of this film have aged extraordinarily well in a world that has changed so drastically. This is a movie about corporate greed. About morality and complicity and what we can change and what we can accept. About asking, “At what point does the thing that I do become the person I am?” About whether we are willing to abandon the things that we’ve worked for to fight the evil we see in the world. And even if we do, and even if we win, does it make a difference?
It’s a seemingly small and quirky detail, but Michael’s son — clearly an innocent and optimistic contrast to the scheming, manipulative lawyers that Michael works with — is rather taken with a fantasy novel. Fantasy, the genre in which morality has traditionally been so black and white. True Good and Pure Evil. And pointedly, the responsibility to answer the call to action when confronted with that evil.
As we grow up, the answer to the question of right and wrong becomes less apparent. The concepts of good and evil and the impact those ideas have on decisions in our lives fade away to the point of vanishing. And most of the time it makes sense because there isn’t always a good or a bad option. Life is murky. But sometimes, maybe, we let the convenience of calling something a “gray area” overrule our instinct that something is wrong. Micheal Clayton is about the weight of hiding in the gray area, and about what happens when you can’t bear that weight any longer.
Can We Go Watch the Movie Now?
Yeah, it’s about that time. Thank you for sticking through 2,000 words worth of my ramblings about a movie from 2007. As always, let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter (@slapnslide). And if you enjoyed the post, or have already seen the movie and know someone else who needs to, please share! Here are the other movies I mentioned and where you can find them streaming, along with a couple bonus recommendations:
Three Days of the Condor – Prime Video, HBO Max
The Firm – Netflix, Prime Video, Tubi, CBS All Access
The Parallax View – HBO Max, Prime Video, CBS All Access
Dark Waters – Rent or buy only
The Pelican Brief – fuboTV, Showtime
All the President’s Men – HBO Max
The Conversation – Prime Video, CBS All Access,