Retrospective

15 years ago, Tony Gilroy made the perfect corporate American thriller

If you want to know why Gilroy was the best writer for Andor, look no further.

Tony Gilroy’s name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days.

The veteran filmmaker has received widespread acclaim for his work on Lucasfilm’s latest live-action Star Wars TV series, Andor. For most Star Wars fans, watching the new Disney+ series may be the first time that they’ve actually engaged with something that Gilroy has written, too. If that’s the case, it’s easy to imagine why Andor’s razor-sharp dialogue, patient pacing, and intelligent plotting might come across as a bit of a surprise.

The truth about Andor, though, is that it’s just the latest in a long line of projects in which Gilroy has explored how both innocent and not-so-innocent people alike are often controlled and manipulated by the corporate and political machines that surround them. He dealt with similar subject matter in both the original Bourne trilogy and its oft-maligned 2012 spin-off, The Bourne Legacy, but no film better proves why Gilroy was the perfect fit for Andor than Michael Clayton.

It’s been 15 years since Gilroy’s 2007 drama was released in theaters, but it may very well still be the greatest American corporate thriller of the 21st century.

Michael Clayton is both a tightly wound thriller and a compelling moral drama, and that’s what makes it so effective. The film isn’t just about a chemical company desperately trying to cover up a scandal that could cost it billions of dollars, nor is it solely concerned with the goings-on of the law firm fixer brought in to handle the situation. Instead, Michael Clayton, which was written and directed by Gilroy, uses those two sides of its story to explore the moral concessions that contemporary corporate America asks of everyone who dares to enter its sphere.

At the center of the film’s exploration of corruption is Michael Clayton (George Clooney), an experienced fixer who spends his days covertly handling difficult situations for his law firm’s clients. Michael, like everyone else in the film, operates on a constant level of cut-and-dry ruthlessness. He speaks succinctly and pointedly, never wasting a word and rarely beating around the bush.

It’s through his protagonist’s perpetually squinted eyes that Gilroy introduces Michael Clayton’s corporate world, one which programs those who operate within it to handle the staging of a crime scene with the same efficiency and brusqueness usually reserved for lifting and moving furniture. This coldness permeates the film’s upper-crust criminal underworld and makes it feel instantly dangerous.

When Michael eventually decides to disobey his bosses, that sense of danger becomes heightened and further helps the film earn its place as one of America’s great paranoia-driven thrillers.

George Clooney gives the best performance of his career in Michael Clayton.Warner Bros. Pictures

Gilroy is, of course, far from the only filmmaker who has dared to dive headfirst into the corrupt world of corporate America. However, what separates Michael Clayton from so many of the other social thrillers like it, is the way in which Gilroy’s efficient, mercenary filmmaking style never gets in the way of his film’s emotional foundation. Indeed, not only is Gilroy able to tell the audience everything they need to know about Clooney’s Michael with just one line of dialogue (“I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor.”) but he does so without sacrificing the character’s emotional layers.

To put that another way: Michael’s remark about his occupation doesn’t just tell us what he does for a living but also how he views his own profession. In his eyes, he’s not a miracle worker or someone to be admired. Instead, he’s someone whose familiarity with the dirty side of American life precludes him from any form of higher moral status. He’s jaded and worn out, but not blind. It’s his ability to see his situation with clear eyes, in fact, that makes him so formidable.

The same could, notably, be said for Cassian Andor.

Michael Clayton believes that even the most powerful of systems can be brought down, but only if real sacrifices are made.Warner Bros. Pictures

Michael Clayton manages to emotionally and intelligently assault modern-day corporate America more deeply and compellingly than any other film of the past 22 years. Much like Andor and Rogue One, the film believes that even the most powerful of systems can be brought down — but only if serious sacrifices are made.

In Rogue One, which Gilroy heavily reshaped behind the scenes, the Rebel Alliance only gets to strike a blow against the Galactic Empire after all of the film’s central rebels have perished. The first several episodes of Andor have similarly juxtaposed loss with progress, but in Michael Clayton, it’s the life of the film’s protagonist that must be destroyed in order for a victory to be achieved against corporate America.

For that reason, it’s Michael Clayton’s final melancholic image of Clooney’s shattered fixer taking a taxi cab into a new life that not only cements it as the greatest corporate American thriller of the century so far but also proves why Tony Gilroy was always a worthy choice to enter cinema’s greatest distant galaxy.

Michael Clayton is available to stream now on Tubi.

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