Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Michael Clayton

Expertly written and cast, Michael Clayton is all that you would want in a legal thriller. Part Grisham, part Erin Brockovich. The dialogue is sharp and technical, but not so much that it loses you.

The title character, played by George Clooney, is a "fixer" in a law firm. A "fixer" is an attorney who cleans up messes and gives clients a dose of reality in places where others might try to sugar coat it. He is called in to "fix" one of the firm's own attorneys, a character played exceptionally by Tom Wilkinson. That character is portrayed by the firm as having went crazy, while he maintains he's only had a "moment of clarity". He's been the lead attorney defending a large agricultural corporation who apparently has knowingly hid information damaging to them.

Wilkinson's character's moment of clarity is the realization that he has used the last 9 years of his life defending a company that is knowingly making people get sick and die. A realization long overdue, obviously, and not taken well by the firm who have received hundreds of millions of dollars in fees or by the agricultural company who see the publicity nightmare looming.

Michael Clayton is sent to talk him out of his change of heart but ends up having one of his own. The story works because all of the characters are real and flawed.

The movie is very appealing because it makes the viewer think about their own lives and the choices he/she makes. We all have these moments of clarity. My last major one led to my quitting a management job in a great company and branching out on my own. I'm about due for another.

We may have these moments and choose not to act on them. It's when you get older and keep ignoring those clarion calls, that you slowly lose your integrity and your soul. It becomes easier and easier to lose every bit of humanity that you may once have had. Don't keep thinking there will be a better opportunity or a more convenient time to do the right thing. Right now is the right time to do the right thing.

It's all well and good to decide on changing your life. Frequently we don't have the luxury of being able to afford a change, financially or otherwise. But, how can we afford not to?

What are each of us worth? How much will it take for us to turn the other way, to subvert our integrity? Really, we're all sell-outs. If someone else pays you to do something ... you are selling out. Whores, basically. But, hopefully, we're prostituting ourselves for some greater good. How we are defined as people is largely determined by where we draw the line.

We can frequently rationalize the things that a company we work for does. One person is just a small cog in the machinery ... or so we think. If we knowingly work, buy goods from, or promote a company that is immoral, illegal, unethical, then aren't we just as culpable? Aren't we giving tacit approval with our silence? It is our responsibility as workers to call out our employers when necessary just as it is our responsibility as citizens to call out our government when necessary. Loyalty and patriotism are hollow words if we are propping up unethical people.

I'm not talking about quitting your jobs and joining the Peace Corps. I'm just saying keep your eyes open. It's not about agreeing with everything your co-workers and bosses say, politically or otherwise. People of good conscience can disagree ... and that's OK. But if somebody is being unethical or is endangering someone else, if you look the other way, you might as well be an accomplice.

It's with no apparent sense of irony that I start this discussion after just a couple of days ago telling you about all the perks that I get working for certain people. I believe those are borne out of satisfaction with a job well done, not with any kind of quid pro quo. I've turned down clients who I had ethical concerns about.

Reviewing this movie appears to have been an excuse for me to lecture ... sorry about that. I really liked the movie. Clooney is on an incredible roll. His career right now is a model of what I would hope to do in my own field -- work on projects that mean something, that are provocative and intelligent. When not doing those projects, have fun, do no harm, and make money that will allow you to make more meaningful projects. Grade: A

"This is not a psychotic breakdown; it's a cleansing moment of clarity." -- Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network


Laura said...

I'll have to put this on our must see list. It sounds great. Pretty much anything Clooney has done lately (with the exception of the Ocean's sequels) has been top notch.

Even in academics we have moral dilemmas. I can happily say that at least the organization I work for does promote some sort of common good and social values. The company I used to work for had P&G as their main client and I started having serious moral dilemmas trying to help them market products that are tested on animals and were bad for the environment.

You have to choose your battles. Very few people have the luxury of acting on their dilemmas.

dbackdad said...

"You have to choose your battles. Very few people have the luxury of acting on their dilemmas." - Very true. We're all part of a working society. Without going to live in the hills as a hermit, there is no real way of going through life without making some kind of compromises.

The most obvious example is driving. I think we all realize what our dependence on oil is doing (see another great Clooney film, Syriana). But, unfortunately, I can't really do without a car right now.