Taking firm control

Special to The Times

The frustrated screenwriter is perhaps one of the oldest clichés in the book. From Preston Sturges to Billy Wilder to David Mamet, the history of Hollywood is full of writers who grow tired of seeing their works sacrificed at the altar of other people's ideas. With "Michael Clayton," writer Tony Gilroy crosses into new turf for the first time as a director, and the result is a film of quiet strength that works at once as a cerebral examination of the machinery of power and as a fast-paced corporate thriller. ¶ Gilroy is the only screenwriter with credit on all three of the hugely successful "Bourne" pictures, and producer Frank Marshall recently called him "the gatekeeper of the franchise." Having begun his screenwriting career with the ice-skating romance "The Cutting Edge," Gilroy has garnered an impressively varied list of credits, including "Dolores Claiborne," "Armageddon," "The Devil's Advocate" and "Proof of Life." Directing a project he had written seemed a natural next step. ¶ "I think I'd built up 20 years of tension," Gilroy said recently by phone from his home in New York, "of either completely walking away from things I didn't like or being closely involved with things that were almost what I wanted them to be. It was very comfortable to be in charge for a change.

"I was almost unaware of the toll it had taken, where even when everything is going well and you feel involved, there's still a filtration process that if you've really seen the movie in your head when you're writing -- to be on a movie set and not be wondering why something was happening, it's a relief."

The character of Michael Clayton is a "fixer" at a big New York law firm. From traffic accidents to angry mistresses to international intrigue, no problem is too big or too small for him to facilitate away. When one of the lead attorneys, defending against a huge class-action lawsuit, suffers a mental breakdown after becoming sympathetic to the plaintiffs, Clayton suddenly has to face which side he really is on. As his boss asks, "Have you gone soft?"

In addition to a definitive turn by George Clooney in the title role and powerful supporting performances from Tom Wilkinson as the mentally ill attorney and Tilda Swinton as an increasingly desperate opposing counsel, "Michael Clayton," which opens Oct. 5, comes with a rather impressive back line of behind-the-scenes talent as well. Sydney Pollack (who appears in the film as Clooney's formidable boss) is a producer, while Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella are credited as executive producers. All award-winning directors in their own right, they put their faith in Gilroy's vision for the film.

Said producer Jennifer Fox, "There's always a concern with first-time directors that they won't be visual enough, won't know how to talk to actors, won't know what they want, and Tony is not that person."

One real accomplishment of "Michael Clayton" is that even the villains show signs of vulnerability and sympathetic humanity. The overall feeling is of good people caught up in a bad world. "There's no real culpability," said Gilroy. "I'm very proud of the distribution of evil in the movie. I feel great sympathy for Tilda Swinton's character. I've written heroes I have less empathy for than her. And the law firm, in the end, if they knew what was really going on they'd be outraged, but it's just how things leak. It's how evil leaks through. I'm not a big believer in conspiracy theories -- the machinery of them always seems to break down -- but I'm a huge believer in entropy."

For all its ambitions and awards-season patina, "Michael Clayton" is, in relative terms, a small film. As Gilroy noted, its budget was "right around George's normal fee." Yet it is that very modesty of scale, keeping things very much on the level of human drama, that gives the film its elegantly graceful vigor. It also made the task of a debut feature slightly less daunting for its neophyte director.

"I sort of have mastery in my other job," said Gilroy, "and you sort of feel like you can do anything, you can swing free. As a writer I really feel that way, all those skills and things you know how to do. I obviously wasn't going to have that, but I wanted some of that feeling. I knew it was containable, it was on a scale that I wouldn't be in over my head. It was manageable in every way."

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